Monday, November 28, 2011

Brother, Where Art Thou?

You know it's Monday -- you know it's Monday, right? And I don't even have a real job, so it's not like Monday means putting the carefree times of the weekend behind me and getting back to the grind. But I do remember those days, how Monday always meant "Aw, fuck, I gotta get up and go do that shit again." That's Monday when you're a real working stiff. There's an aura to Monday, though, a quality you can't miss, even if you're "self-employed." And don't get me wrong, today wasn't a particularly shitty Monday. It wasn't an "Are you fucking kidding me?" Monday. It was more like waking up and discovering someone's having sex with you. It was a sleeping tushy Monday, sort of a "Whoa, hey, what's going on here?" Monday. Which, depending on your attitude, I guess you could say was a good Monday? I don't know. Feedback is always welcome.

Before I go any further, I'd like to throw out a little request to the universe, and if anybody knows of a way to make this happen, I will procure for you a night of the sexual satisfaction of your choice, no questions asked. I'm speaking, of course, of the Geico ads. I don't even give a shit about that stupid gecko -- fuck him, I tune him out. But every time I see that suit-wearing, slicked-back hair numbnuts from The Brothers McMullen, turning toward the camera with his hands in his pockets and asking offhandedly whether Geico can really save you money on your car insurance, and then he eyes the camera and asks a pithy one-liner question like, "Do woodchucks really chuck wood?" I want to destroy every beautiful thing that ever existed. It's like fingernails on the chalkboard of my soul. I can't take it anymore. They had one -- one -- funny bit, and that was the one where he asks whether Abe Lincoln was honest. I mean, seriously, they put Abe Lincoln into every guy's nightmare scenario, a version of "Does this dress make my ass look fat?" and, of course, because he's honest Abe, he hesitates a beat too long. That is flawless comedy, and I could watch that commercial, uninterrupted, for two days straight, and I would laugh every time. But the rest . . . the rest. Stop. Just fucking stop, now. I take that back: make one more, and just one more. Ask this question: Does the Pope shit in the woods? And . . . lights. Please, I beg you. And if anyone out there can make this happen, for real, you will have one wild, kinky night to look forward to, even if I have to do the deed myself.

I confess, for the most part my Monday was bumping along just fine: I got up early, as I almost always do (I'm not proud of this, I just seem to have arrived there in the last year, like older people usually do), I settled in at the coffee shop with the manuscript I'm editing, did some solid work, felt good about it, took a little break to respond to a couple emails, in the course of one of which I talked a bit about my older brother. For those who don't know, I have two of each, brothers and sisters, and I'm smack in the middle: sister, brother, me, sister, brother. So I was giving the updates on my siblings to a long-time friend I hadn't seen in far too long, and I lingered a bit as I talked about my brother. I haven't spoken to this brother in four or five years. We had a falling out. I'd like to say it was entirely my fault, but in truth, he's married to a truly awful woman, and after about a decade and a half of nobody saying so much as boo, I finally made the mistake of saying, pretty much, "Boo." Regrets are for suckers, and this woman is Mussolini with a Mainah accent, except the only thing she ever made run on-time was mealtime (Mussolini at least made the trains run on time), so, well, so it goes. Rarely, but sometimes, I miss my brother.

Pete is about fourteen months older than me, we were a year apart in school, and growing up out in the sticks as we did, we developed a pretty typical camaraderie. Endless hours we threw baseballs and footballs back and forth. Pete cut the bottom out of a square cardboard box and nailed it to a tree, and we shot baskets on it with a kickball that was about two-thirds inflated. When the box disintegrated, he clipped the spokes out of a twenty-inch bike tire rim and nailed that to the tree. We had to keep climbing up and driving the nails back in pretty constantly, but for a while it worked for our dirt-poor purposes. One weekend we built a motorless go-cart out of some scrap lumber and a combination of lawnmower and bike parts, and Pete pulled me around on it with a tow rope (because he was twice my size and I possessed one-eighth of his strength, so the other way around wouldn't have been fun for either of us). And we worked: stacking wood, mowing lawns, pulling nails out of potential firewood, cleaning horse stalls, whatever there was, we did it, and usually we did it together.

As I say, Pete was always much bigger than me when we were kids. Allegedly, there was a three-year span during which I gained not one ounce of weight. "That boy ain't right," everybody figured, but I was perfectly healthy, not the least bit sickly (I still get sick less frequently than anyone I know, which makes no sense, but maybe it just means I'm the chosen one). But Pete went up two pants sizes every year, it seemed, and he was strong -- farm-boy strong, in spite of the fact that we did no farming. He was an inadvertent bruiser, not nearly as guileless as Steinbeck's Lenny, but equally as effective when doing little more than closing his hand around something crushable like the fender of, say, a '74 Dodge Charger (for those who don't know, once upon a time, cars were made out of something called "steel"). I loved my big brother's attention, and I was a tad relentless, which means from time to time I would harass him until the point where he'd had enough and he would, with one beefy hand, brush me aside, leaving me bawling in pain. Our overworked mother would stop whatever thankless, endless task she was engaged in and scold him, to which he would always respond (and I'm not making this up) by looking at the hand that had done the swatting and say, with more than a hint of wonder, "What? That didn't hurt."

My first real lesson at the hands of my brother came early on, and it was significant enough so that I should have learned. But I didn't, and I like to consider this a testament to the affection I had for my brother when we were kids. It was a hot late-summer Friday evening, my sisters were spending the night with our grandparents (and my little brother's arrival was still a long way off), and after a long work week our mother had no patience for her idiot sons and so had filled the little wading pool and allowed us to soak ourselves until bedtime (in lieu of an actual bath), which afforded her some rare relaxation time with her latest Reader's Digest magazine. To this day I wish I could recall the tipping point, the moment at which I crossed the imaginary line that existed in my brother's head, but I couldn't have been more than four when it happened, and the minutes that followed whatever near fatal choice I'd made are what linger in my memory. I said or did something, Pete had, once again, had enough, and he grabbed my head, pinned it underwater, and proceeded to sit on it (my head). I'm not much of a swimmer -- I can swim, but it's not something I do unless I absolutely have to -- and I certainly hadn't learned to swim or do much of anything underwater by that point in my life. With my head pressed to the floor of our wading pool under a forty-five pound human weight, I kept my eyes open and remember three images that will always be burned upon my brain: first, my brother's face, laughing down at me; second, my mother sitting cross-legged and pleasantly oblivious not more than six feet away, probably reading about a harrowing experience with a grizzly bear in Yellowstone; and then, once more, my brother's face, the instant before he released me, glowing with magnanimity. I came up, sputtering and coughing and crying, crawled out of the pool seeking my mother's solace. She shielded herself with the towel she threw over me, and I couldn't get the words out.

There weren't a lot of occasions for Pete to play the real big brother role -- that of protector and avenging angel -- because I was far too innocuous to fuck with in those days, but on the rare occasion when someone did try to raise a hand against me, Pete easily and immediately rose to the occasion. The one I remember best happened as we were getting on the bus to head home one afternoon after school. Brent Norris was two years older than me, so a year older than Pete, and a notorious paper tough guy, a scrawny teenage chain smoker who wore his daily uniform of blue jeans and matching jean jacket over a t-shirt bearing a pot leaf. He was nothing more than a punk, but punks, as we all know, have to find ways to solidify their reputations as tough guys, and what better way than to flex his limited muscles in the face of a puny sixth-grader. I still don't know exactly what I did to garner Brent's ire, but I suppose somehow I bumped into him when whoever was in front of me suddenly spun around and dropped into a seat and I took a step back. Next thing I knew, Brent shoved me. Skinny little dude that I was, I was still no pussy and I took no more kindly to being shoved than anyone else would, and so I spun around and said something to the effect of, "Excuse me, asshole, cut the shit." What I said doesn't matter, because he was Brent, and the likes of me were supposed to cower in his presence, which meant now he had to make a show of bravado. He grabbed my jacket and started to say something . . . but unfortunately for Brent, Pete happened to be only one person behind him. Pete reached that magnificent beefy paw over the shoulder of the poor soul who separated them and lifted Brent off his feet. I'll never forget the look in Brent's eyes as his fingers let loose my jacket: it was the look of a kid who had certainly had his ass kicked more than once and yet had never seen it coming (translation: beatings in the Norris house were random but frequent, and for that I pity young Brent, as I pity anyone who grew up enduring something like that from people who were supposed to care for him). When his feet touched the floor again and he was facing my brother, Brent tried to get tough, but my brother's slightly smirking square jaw made it abundantly clear it wasn't going to get any better for Brent, and would quite likely get a lot worse, regardless of the fact that Brent was older and thought himself untouchable in that environment. Brent did get lucky, though: just then the bus driver wove his way down the aisle and escorted both my brother and Brent off the bus and into the principal's office. They were both banned from the bus for one week (a hardship for my family, I assure you -- I think Pete actually walked all the way home that day, something like five miles). But Brent never came near me again.

A few years later we were in high school, and I watched sadly as the image I'd had of my big brother slowly crumbled. We'd grown up in a small town ripe with good kids (the Brent Norrises of the world notwithstanding), but high school one town away was a different story. It was a much bigger town and thus a much bigger school, for one thing, but there was also an insular quality to the place. It was still a relatively thriving mill town back then, which means the population didn't alter much, it just grew from within. The town kids had known each other since kindergarten and peewee sports, and the influx of outlier kids from the towns with no high school of their own did little to interrupt the cliques that had been maintained for a decade or more by the time we all got to high school. But Pete was a big-hearted affable guy who had grown accustomed to rubbing elbows with what he perceived to be the centers of attention of our little country sect, and so it never even crossed his mind that he wouldn't simply transition into the same group of fellers once he hit high school. Except, for whatever reason, Pete was never their kind of guy. Well, I say "for whatever reason," but the reason is that these guys had some vision of themselves as special, because Winslow was a sports-idol town, and these boys had grown up believing they were big fish, without the requisite sense of how pitifully small their pond actually was. They tolerated Pete the way the court tolerates the jester. And Pete never got it. I recognized it almost immediately by the time I'd passed on from our little country school to the big high school, but, to my shame, I didn't immediately recognize what these phonies were doing to my brother because I couldn't get over wondering why my brother even cared about what these small-minded, meaningless jerks thought. I didn't get it, because as gregarious as my brother always was, I was equally as introverted, and so I never gave a shit about cliques or crowds or acceptance. I didn't see my brother's struggles as a problem with that fucked-up social dynamic, I saw it as a problem with him. And I started to withdraw from my brother.

Two years later, I went off to a better school and left my brother to fend for himself through his senior year. But not before I took away probably the last bit of joy he was likely to get out of high school. I was a sophomore and Pete was a junior, and for the first time in three years we found ourselves once again on the same basketball team (in Vassalboro, the team was made up of sixth, seventh and eighth graders, and goddamn was it fun, in part because I got to play with my brother every day for two years), anchoring the bench on the Winslow High School junior varsity. Our coach that year was a monumental prick named Jim Poulin -- and anyone reading this who grew up in Winslow and has drunk the Jim Poulin koolaid, I make no apologies: the guy was a dick and if there is a hell, which I don't believe, I get no small pleasure imagining him writhing there for all eternity. Jim Poulin was a Winslow guy, born and bred, and he'd spent the entirety of his pointless, miniscule life watching Winslow kids grow up to play sports for that school, developing the myopia typical of unimaginative, intellectually limited people. It wasn't just that he had no interest in kids from outside Winslow, he was small enough to use those kids as foils to boost his limited coaching skills among the kids he did understand, the Winslow stock. My brother Pete was one of his favorite targets. Pete lacked game, that is undeniable: he was slow and oafish, and I used to lovingly refer to his beefy hands as "stone mittens." What can I say, finesse was not his game. But he worked harder than any two Winslow kids combined, and he was anything but stupid. In other words, he never even remotely deserved the malicious treatment he suffered at the hands of this poor excuse for a coach (if you wonder whether I'm just spitting sour grapes here, go check Jim Poulin's career coaching numbers in basketball -- they are less than impressive). He picked on all of us out of town kids, but he railed against Pete incessantly, and it chapped my ass, but what could a fifteen-year-old kid do against a petty tyrant? Because he lacked the ability to evaluate talent (the year before he got his hands on me, I'd been captain of the freshman team, leading the team in assists, steals, shooting percentage and minutes played), "coach" Poulin engaged in self-satisfying perversions, such as pitting my brother and me against each other in drills during practice. The implication, of course, was always that one of us could distinguish ourselves enough to earn a starting roll in the next game, but all it ever was to him was a way to demonstrate to the other players his ability to motivate. Genius: pit two brothers you've spent months maligning against each other, and then take credit for the resulting spectacle. Again, die an ignominious death, Jim Poulin, and rot in hell. Anyway, the rebounding drill. Five guys on offense pass the ball around the perimeter, five guys defend, and when "coach" blows the whistle, whoever has the ball puts up a shot, and the defenders seal their respective men and GODDAMNIT the defense better get the rebound or we'd be running. "Coach" put me on Pete, and I remember him making a snide remark about us as he tossed the ball in play. Pass, pass, pass, Pete has the ball and tweet, Pete takes the shot. And I do what I've been taught, what I've always done: I step into him, plant a forearm into his chest, pivot, and seal him off with my hips. Except that Pete hasn't quite reached the floor as my forearm nudges him, and he comes down awkwardly, and he breaks his foot.

Pete loved basketball, loved it more than any of the sports we'd been playing together all those years. He was never very good at it -- those stone mittens did not serve him well. No matter what sport you play (except perhaps sumo wrestling or boxing), soft hands will always serve you better than the alternative. But he loved it, and he worked hard. I have to believe he didn't imagine he'd ever be a regular playing in that system, but still, he had a place, and he had another season and a half to enjoy it. But I broke his foot, and except for pickup games here and there and some one-on-one, he never played again after that. It was an accident, I know, but still, I was the one leaning into him when the accident happened. I could forgive it all, perhaps, if not for that awful place and those shitty people like Jim Poulin who were so determined to remind him, at every turn, that he wasn't one of them.

One afternoon the summer after I graduated from high school, Pete and I were home alone at my parents' house and decided to play some one-on-one. Sometime in the years since the bike rim on the tree we'd managed to score a pretty well bent, netless rim that we'd screwed to the face of one of our father's many outbuildings, and though it left much to be desired, it was our regular court and we both knew how to play it. And we played for hours that hot afternoon. I had developed my own game quite a bit since he and I had last played, and at first I took advantage of my improved shot, my exceptional first-step and ball-handling. But he's my big brother, and rubbing his face in anything at all, least of all basketball, was not something I relished. And so I sandbagged a bit: I settled for long shots, I gave up on loose balls I could have easily fought for, I let him blow by me a handful of times. I didn't throw games, I just understood he needed it more than I did, and so I did my best to keep the games close. Because you never know when this time will be the last time you get to have a day like that with someone you love. After it was over, we stretched out in the room we shared in the tarpaper shack, and he told me he'd gotten a girl at Vo-Tech school pregnant, and that he was going to marry her.

I was incredulous, but for all the wrong reasons: I was young and brash and by then had had my share of teenage sex and so I thought I knew a thing or two. I'd imagined the prospects of a "mistake," and thought I knew what I would do. What I wanted, after the fact as always, was to protect my big brother from the world, protect him with my wisdom the way he'd protected me with his brawn when we were kids. But I couldn't protect him then any more then than I could when we were in high school. He married the girl, the baby was born the following February, a month or so after the ink had dried on his divorce papers. For a while, though, he acquitted himself nicely: he was a good dad, and that impressed me. I was proud of my brother for that.

Eventually, and perhaps not unexpectedly, Pete lost his way. He wound up married to Mussolini, they moved away and had two more kids. Mussolini (as petty tyrants always are) is threatened by anything that doesn't revolve around her, and so in time she managed to carve my brother's first child entirely out of his life. That poor girl, my niece, grew up under the influence of a mother who, given her many limitations, couldn't help but raise the girl in her own image. I mention this -- I tell this entire story, in fact -- because for the first time today I realized my brother, who is only fourteen months older than me -- is a grandfather. His first child gave birth to a child earlier this year. At the age of forty-three my brother became a grandfather. I realize there was a time when that wasn't even remotely unusual, but these are not those times. And if the variables were different, I would quite possibly think nothing of it. But the variables are what they are: my brother made a series of poor choices, some of which were the byproduct of shitty experiences at the hands of shitty people, and he ended up becoming a grandfather at the age I'm going to turn in about a month. And that is a HOLY FUCKING SHIT moment if ever I've had one.

And that would define my Monday, except that one question remains, the question I can't ask him because he won't speak to me: has he even met his grandchild yet? Part of me wants to know the answer, the slim sliver that believes the answer must be "yes," because he's my brother and there was once much to admire about him. But the other side of me, the side that watched my brother slowly evolve into someone I don't even recognize, suspects he hasn't, and what could I say to that person, except, "You are no brother of mine." And who would ever want to face that moment?

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