By Nick Ostdick
Don’t stay out late all the time. This neighborhood changes at night: In the moonlight the buildings all look like they’re crying. When you’re older, in your teens maybe, and realize that music makes you sweat, that it turns something on inside you, that it’s a shortcut to girls and pussy, don’t bum around town with some bullshit band all the time. Kiss covers won’t save you, and even though you think they might take you out of this town, out of this neighborhood, they wont—you’re stuck here. Don’t leave our old man in the lurch. He’ll be getting on by the time you’re old enough to leave and since I don’t see our moms getting a second crack at life, he’ll need someone to help him to the bathroom or down to the corner for groceries and he likes you. Don’t ever ask him about what happened with our moms though. He won’t tell you and it’ll just make him sad. You can ask me sometime, but not right now.
It was snowing when our moms died. First snow of the year, which I think she would’ve liked because at least it was pretty, because she loved the sound snow makes as it falls. Some kind of blood disease is what did her in, something unexpected. That’s all I’m going to say about it right now.
On Valentine’s Day I asked our old man if he missed her. Who wouldn’t? You won’t remember her because it was not long after you were born that she kicked—I’m not blaming you, ever—and it was a really dumb question because there isn’t anyone on the planet who wouldn’t miss her, who wouldn’t give up their entire future to be with her for one soft second in the past. At school my sixth grade class was making Valentines out of cardboard and I sat at the kitchen table one afternoon cutting out heart shapes while our old man was sitting in the living room with the TV on mute, just staring lifeless at the pictures. He was drinking. He was watching boxing. Like always. This is when I asked him if he missed her because I sure as hell did. He didn’t say anything.
“Wanna make one for her?” I said, holding up a piece of cardboard. “She’ll like it.”
“No,” he said, suddenly standing over me. “She won’t even know you’re making it.”
His breath was wet with pain; the bulge of his gut against my arm made me shiver. He crushed a beer can deeply into his palm before letting it double over on the table, and then he headed upstairs to his room. After a while a woman he was sleeping with named Victoria came over and they watched boxing together in the living room, and I went upstairs to check on you, to get away from the two of them. You were sleeping in your crib and I didn’t want to wake you so I tried to sneak outside, passed the living room where they were smoking weed, when our old man spotted me and said, “Why don’t you make a card for Victoria?” Clouds of smoke dripped from his mouth and filled the air.
“My teacher said family only,” I said, which was a black a lie as I had ever told. “Sorry, Vicky.”
This was a mistake. He quickly got up and reached out and grabbed me by my chin, forcing his glassy eyes into mine. My jaw ached as he held me there, working the soft skin underneath, pushing on all kinds of nerves from my throat to my heart.
“Why don’t you make her one,” he said. “Make it good.”
I looked at Victoria. She smiled helplessly like she wanted to say something to me but couldn’t. So I put together a Valentine for her while the two of them sat in the living room watching TV, and after I was done I left it on the table and went back up to your room to check on you. You were still sleeping, but this time I rocked your crib back and forth, gently at first and then with more and more swing, until you woke up and starting crying, until I could no longer hear my heart beat in my head.
Don’t fight, or at least try not to fight: Don’t drink either, or at least try not to drink. Don’t hang out with any of my friends, the ones who ride around the neighborhood on old BMX bikes in the middle of the night and have eyes like smoldering cigarettes. Don’t date girls from the neighborhood either. You’ll be too much alike because you grew up in the same place and eventually you’ll be a fucking weight on each other’s leg and grow to hate each other. Don’t stay with the first girl you sleep with either, even though you probably will because it’s in your blood.
Odds are she’ll be Mexican. She’ll have a sweet sounding name like Dora and real innocent looking eyes like a song on the radio. After you guys start going around for a while she’ll tell you that she won’t leave you for anything and you’ll believe her because of her eyes, her dimples. You’ll start to trust her and call her when our old man is drunk and mumbling out loud in the basement or fucking some woman in the room next to yours, and you’ll tell her that you’re scared and then prepare for her to laugh because you’ll feel ridiculous. She’ll gasp a little on the other end of the phone and say, “Come over here.”
You’ll creep across town and she’ll sneak you into her house through her dark, humid basement, and that night in her room the two of you will make love. You’ll start sleeping there three or four nights a week and begin to feel that the tickle of her hair in your nose is all you need to survive. This is why it will be hard when she leaves, and trust me, she’ll leave. When her old man gets laid off or deported or takes a better job somewhere else: All things you knew might happen but never really thought could hurt you. You’ll cry, you pussy, you will cry thinking about how you could see the entire universe in her eyes as you two made love at night under her bedroom window, how her cheeks almost seemed to sparkle with moon dust. You’ll feel like nothing without her.
So you’ll go over to her house to say goodbye the night before she leaves and she’ll say, “I don’t want a new home.” You’ll take her by the hand and say, “This is your home,” placing it on your heart. “One last time?” she’ll ask, her lips already on your neck, and two of you will make love on her bedroom floor surrounded by boxes. DON’T, under any circumstances, ask her to marry you. She’ll be as weak as you are and say yes and her old man will flip shit and say, “You two are doomed!” like he’s cursing you, like he knows something you don’t.
A few months later, after she’s moved in with some distant relative on the other side of town, she’ll resent you for asking her to marry you. You’ll resent her for resenting you. She’ll know all you wanted was for her to stay and you’ll know that you’re holding her back because all you are, all you have to offer her, is this neighborhood, and one night long after you’re married her resentment will come to a head and she’ll roll over in bed and say, “I don’t think about you when we make love.”
“Ever?” You’ll ask.
You won’t say anything because you’ll understand. She’ll roll over for sleep and you’ll stare at her, looking for the stars in her eyes and the moon on her face, and find nothing but a black hole, and this moment will be much more painful than just letting her go, than just trying to get by without her.
Don’t drop out of school. Don’t take the job our old man offers you at the Chrysler plant where he works. You’ll hate it, and think you can do whatever you want there because you’re his son. You’ll get fired in some embarrassing way—like in the break room right in front of our old man, right in his eyes. Afterwards, you’ll start to hate our old man and he’ll start to hate you, but really you’ll both just hate yourselves. Don’t settle. Don’t wish. Don’t pray.
You, after all, you might not be all that stupid. You’ve got some book smarts, much more than I do. I know I told you not to leave, but try and keep up here. No one from around this neighborhood ever goes to any fancy ass college, I know, but maybe you could: Maybe you could go and get a degree in some bullshit field like religion or philosophy, and when you call home once and a while to see how things are or how our old man is doing with whatever will finally kill him, I’ll say, “Don’t ever ask me that fucking question again. Now tell me some shit I don’t know.” Then maybe you’ll tell me about your classes and some blond girl named Susan who you’re sleeping with whose cheeks are like a clear sky. You’ll tell me you think this girl might be the one. You’ll say she’s the end of the line for you, and I’ll tell you you don’t know shit about stuff like that. Remember: This is my way of saying I hope you’re right.
After our old man finally kicks some years later, you’ll come home for the first time in years for the funeral. You’ll look different: shorter hair, smoother looking skin. Even though I won’t get it, you’ll try to explain to me what your job is and how you and that girl are probably going to have a baby soon. I won’t say anything. I’ll nod; this is my way of not crying when maybe I really want to.
We’ll catch up. You’ll tell me about the crazy parties you used to go to and the books you read and I’ll actually be interested. At night, we’ll sit in the old living room with smoke marks caked on the walls and drink and move on to more weighty subjects. You’ll try to convince me that every culture has it’s own conception of God and that each God watches out for all the people in that culture. I’ll think it’s bullshit and say so.
The best part is you won’t care what I think. You’ll have your own thoughts now, your own beliefs. My words and my threats won’t mean shit to you anymore, which is all I can hope for. You won’t see it, but when you leave, when you drive your fancy rental back to the airport after the funeral, I’ll stand on the corner until you’re out of sight and stuff my hands deep into my pockets and smile in way that no one in this neighborhood has ever dreamed possible. We won’t hug when you leave. We won’t shake hands. We’ll nod at each other in a way that means so much more, and that’ll be just fine.
Until then though, listen up to what I tell you because you don’t have a choice. Otherwise I’ll kick your ass because we’re brothers and that’s really all we have.
Nick Ostdick is a fiction writer via Chicago. He was the editor of the now defunct RAGAD, a broadside and online magazine of fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pindeldyboz, Slow Trains, Our Stories, Annalemma, and elsewhere, and his story "The Sleeping Shags" was a 2007 StorySouth Notable Story. He has read at venues and conferences across the country and is completing his BA in creative writing from Carroll University in Wisconsin, where he is set to begin work on his first collection of short fiction.
Photo "Brothers," courtesy of Csaba Polgar, Novi Sad, Serbia.
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