Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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In January of my senior year my brother Jake committed suicide at the Air Force Academy. A rumor went around the high school that he’d done it because he was gay and his lover had dumped him. I got cut from the basketball team when Rick Anderson asked me if I was a faggot like my brother, and I hit him so hard I jarred his teeth loose and blood drooled from his mouth onto the polished hardwood, as he sputtered and cried that his dad would sue the shit out of mine. My father, who was reffing the game, peeled me off Rick before I rammed my fist down his throat.
It didn’t matter to me that I got cut from the team because of hitting Rick. I wasn’t that good anyway, and had lost the heart for it. Jake had been a star at our school, most valuable player at the annual rivalry game with Central two years running. He was tall and muscled with brittle blue eyes and black hair. My father swore he looked like my mother, who’d deserted us for an evangelist preacher when I was five. I honestly don’t remember her at all but Jake, who was eight when she left, once produced a black-and-white picture of her, one that miraculously escaped the bonfire my father built in the back yard the summer my mother took off. I don’t remember my mother, it seems impossible, but I can still see my dad upending a bottle of Scotch into his mouth, his face grizzled from not shaving, flinging everything that had ever had anything to do with my mother onto the flames. I remember the smoldering books, a blue linen jacket, brown leather pumps, their wedding album, all swirling skyward where, as far as I was concerned, my mother had gone.
Jake slid the snapshot across the kitchen table one night after supper. My father had been drinking steadily since he’d come home from work. He went on bouts like this once or twice a month. The time in between was spent making up for these transgressions: he baked for us — fat oatmeal cookies and double-crust fruit pies — and he took us out of town in the Ford Galaxy. I remember sipping kiddy cocktails in restaurants where the man behind the bar always knew my dad, while Jake either sulked, stabbing at his food and yanking occasionally at his clip-on tie, or behaved in a cocky, brazen manner that made him appear far older and harder than he was.
The night the photo of my mother spun across the formica my father could be heard shouting in front of the television. “You’re gonna rot in hell, you slut!” There would be silence and then, “You whore!” I always hoped that at times like this he was referring to someone other than my mother, but then he’d scream, “Andrea!” and we’d hear him weeping and muttering long after we’d climbed into our beds.
“That’s her,” Jake hissed. “That’s Mom.”
I held the picture close to my face. She was sitting on a low brick wall in a strapless sundress. Suddenly, fiercely, I wanted to know what color it was, as if it would make her more real to me. She was smiling and her teeth were straight and even. Her hair looked glossy as black satin.
“Where’d you get it?” I asked, still holding the picture.
“She sent it to me.”
Jake pulled a Marlboro Light out of a crumpled pack. He was sixteen. “I lied,” he said, lighting the cigarette and squinting across the table at me. “I found it.”
“Where?” My hands were damp with perspiration, my fingertips sticky. I set the photograph down. I had just turned thirteen and was always sweating. I self-consciously sprayed Right Guard under my arms every morning before going to school. Sometimes my voice cracked. I lived in a state of perpetual anxiety, witnessing with alarm the coarse sprouting hairs around my penis and in my armpits.
“It was in a shoebox in the garage.” Jake leaned back in his chair and blew smoke up to the light bulb. “I found it when I had to clean the shit-hole last summer.”
I remembered the sweltering afternoon. The job had been punishment. Jake had taken the car the night before and didn’t even have a permit yet. My father, who’d filled the car up the previous morning, ran out of gas on his way to work. That’s how he knew. I figured something was up when he came home an hour early that afternoon.
“Where’s your brother?” he asked, looming above my lawn chair on the back porch. I started, shielding my eyes from the blast of sunlight behind my father’s dark face.
“Inside,” I said. “He’s on the phone.” Jake spent as much as two hours on the phone every afternoon that summer. He was in love with Claire Collard, a pretty, blonde seventeen-year-old who spent each August at her family’s cottage in North Carolina.
“Get him,” my father said.
I hurried into the house, which was dark and cool. My brother had pulled the phone into the bathroom. The door was locked. I knocked lightly, holding my breath.
“Jake,” I whispered. “It’s Dad.”
Jake opened the door a crack. I could see his face was flushed. The bathroom was dark, the shade pulled down on the window.
“He’s home?” Jake asked. I nodded, feeling a chill sweep across my bare shoulders.
They fought, yelling at each other across the porch. “Who the hell do you think you are?” my father shouted. I listened from my bedroom, until I heard Jake crying. Then I turned my radio on, loud. My brother cleaned out the garage. My father drank long into the night’s black heat.
I stared at the picture of my mother for what seemed like a long time. I didn’t know who she was but I felt suddenly like I’d awakened from a dreamless sleep to find my room ransacked, my possessions knocked about, and something of tremendous importance stolen. Jake stubbed out his cigarette and snapped up the photograph.
“What else was in the box?” I asked, my voice hushed.
“Nothing much,” Jake said. “Some letters she wrote to the old man. Love letters.” He snorted.
“What did they say?”
“A lot of cheap talk,” Jake said. “A lot of bullshit promises. I love you, Robert. I can’t wait till we’re married. We’ll never be apart again.” Jake slid the picture into his wallet and looked at me. “Nothing but crap, little brother.”
I was going to ask him where they were, the letters, but my father stumbled into the kitchen just then and Jake stood up, jamming the wallet into his back pocket.
My father was tall but he always looked stooped when he drank. Jake, at sixteen, was a good four inches taller than my dad, and brushing past him that night in the kitchen he looked massive in comparison, like a warrior next to a withered old man.
“Where the hell you think you’re going?” my father asked, leaning against the doorway for support.
I heard my brother pick up the car keys from the table near the front door. “If Claire calls, I’m at the gym,” Jake yelled, and the front door slammed behind him.
My father looked over to where I was sitting. I could tell he was probably seeing me double. “I hope to God he’s not fucking her,” he said.
That fall Claire Collard got a scholarship and went to Stanford. My brother hurled himself into basketball, played first-string varsity. He kept a B average and worked three nights a week at Burger King. He wrote long letters to Claire on sheets of typing paper. He called her on weekends. I don’t remember her ever calling him, though letters arrived, addressed to Jacob A. Sorens in a script that was less elegant and feminine than Claire herself. There were a few girls at school who were overtly interested in my brother, thinking him fair game with Claire graduated and out of state. As far as I could tell, Jake never paid attention to any of them. He gained the reputation of being cool, mean, and pussy-whipped.
Christmas that year, Claire went skiing in Vail, Colorado with her family. She was home for three days before going back to California. I never saw her, or my brother, during that time. I wondered where he ate and slept. My father didn’t drink during that entire Christmas vacation. He sold insurance and many nights came home after ten. I watched a lot of TV and ate macaroni and cheese or frozen dinners. I prowled in my brother’s bedroom one night in search of the shoebox from the garage but I never found it. I wondered what Claire’s breasts felt like beneath my brother’s huge hands.
Claire broke up with Jake before summer vacation. She was staying in California, she wrote, to do clerical work in a law firm. It’s for the best, she wrote. I know, because I read the letter. It was typed on pale pink stationery rimmed with tiny white flowers. The paper was fragrant, as if the flowers were alive.
That summer I drank my first Colt 45 and kissed Janie Taylor for hours on her front porch. She was a little thin but pretty and smart. We’d been in Advanced Placement English the semester before.
“I hear Claire split up with your brother,” Janie said one night, sliding her tan feet out of her sandals and propping them in my lap. Her toenails were polished a frosty pink. I stroked one foot and felt my crotch tingle.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Think he’ll go out with anyone when school starts?” She leaned back and rubbed one foot gently between my legs.
“I don’t know,” I said. The skin on my entire body felt hot and electric. I wanted to yank her off her chair and pull her on top of me. Instead I said in a tight whisper, “Come over here and kiss me.”
Her eyes glittered. “Where?” she asked, putting her bare feet down on the porch. That was the first taste I had of the meanness of women.
My brother worked forty hours a week. He came home beat and sullen. My father said, “He’ll get over her,” one night at the kitchen table. He’d prepared cajun chicken and a fruit salad with fresh pineapple chunks and walnuts.
Jake, who’d gone to the bathroom to wash up, was standing sullenly in the doorway.
My dad didn’t look up. He spooned long-grain rice onto our plates. Jake sat down. He’d been lifting weights that summer and his biceps bulged when he picked up his knife and fork.
“So,” Jake said. “Think if I drank it would help?” It was a quiet question, but I felt the anger beneath it.
“I haven’t had a drop in six months,” my father said. He looked hurt.
“Well, are you over her?” Jake bit into a piece of chicken.
“It’s not the same, Jake.”
Jake flung the drumstick onto his plate. Sauce spattered all over the table. “It is the goddamn same!” he said.
“Jake, you’re only seventeen, for Christ’s sake. There’ll be other women.”
“Don’t fucking patronize me!” my brother shouted. It suddenly occurred to me that he was really grieved. He put his hands over his face and a sob burst from him. “You don’t understand,” he said. “I still dream about her.”
My father was clenching his teeth so hard that his jaw quivered. “I know,” he said quietly. “So do I.” It was only then that I realized Jake was talking about my mother. His mother.
“I wake up, I hear you in the kitchen, I smell coffee and I think it’s her.” Jake took a deep breath and wiped his eyes with his napkin. “I just can’t believe she could do it. That she could have us and then just forget us completely, like we were nothing, like we didn’t exist.”
I looked at my father. There were tears glistening in his eyes. My own chest felt wrenched.
“She thought you were conceived in sin,” he said.
The sound that emerged from my brother at that moment was like a sob and a scream and a groan and it ran through my entire body like ice water. Jake hurled himself out the kitchen door. Seconds later we heard the squeal of the Galaxy’s tires as he roared out of the driveway.
A few days before school started, Jake brought a girl home. I don’t think Claire had ever been near our house. I had just returned from Janie’s on my ten-speed and was propping the bike on the front porch when the door swung open and a girl I vaguely recognized walked out. I could tell she was mad even before she looked at me.
“Your brother is weird,” was all she said, before getting into her car.
Jake took a couple of girls out during the year but his real focus was on basketball and getting into the Academy. Janie dropped me for a j.v. football linebacker. I didn’t care; I already had my eye on a sophomore named Kayla Pearce. I played basketball and got decent grades. I’d heard that Janie, in spite of our break-up, was jealous of my attention to Kayla. One morning she walked up to me in the hall and said, “Carol Stein tells me your brother can’t get it up.” Her look was so smug, such a mixture of delight and defiance, I realized I never knew her. Then she turned and walked away. I felt a sudden, ferocious, tender love for my brother.
“You’re a whore!” I shouted after her, but she was already out of range.
Jake got a senator’s appointment to the Air Force Academy that spring. The day he spent packing to leave was dense and humid. I watched him going through his closet and drawers, sorting, folding, tossing some things to me. His black hair was already cut short and I thought he was the most beautiful human being I’d ever seen. The sky outside the window was dark. We could hear thunder and then drops of rain pelting the roof. The bedroom was heavy with shadow and I felt the stirrings of a deep, long-forgotten grief.
“Hand me a smoke, would ya?”
I threw him the pack that was on top of his bureau.
“Think you’ll play basketball?” I asked.
“Fuck yeah,” he said. “That’s how I got in.” He laughed a low, dark laugh. He pulled a T-shirt out of the bottom drawer and held it to his mouth and nose. “Hmm,” he said, “Rive Gauche. Smells like Claire.” He wadded it and threw it at me. “You can have it, or burn it,” he said.
I loved him too much to be indignant. I would have taken anything he had to give me that day: his secrets, his knowledge, his memories, his shame. I wondered if my mother, or Claire, or any woman for that matter, was conscious of what a man gave up to love her. I looked at Jake, stuffing jeans and gym shorts into a duffle bag: his hard, powerful body, the passion and longing I shared with him, already complicated by loss, and failure, and helplessness. I wished he could give me something that would last, that would save us.
My father brought Jake’s body home from Colorado in a record-breaking blizzard. He was buried in his Air Force uniform, the sleeves hiding forever his strong, sinewy forearms where he’d raked the razor countless times clean up to his elbows.
A lot of people turned out for the funeral service. My father was a mess, but he hadn’t had a drink and I was proud of how he held up. Claire’s parents were there. I remember seeing Mrs. Collard way across the other side of the church, her blonde hair swept up in a bun, her eyes lowered every time I looked at her, as if that gesture alone were enough to apologize for Claire’s absence. The basketball coach gave a eulogy that I don’t remember now, though his voice caved in more than once and I felt my father beside me shudder during those moments of silence. I thought of the picture of my mother, her slender legs crossed at the ankles, her smile, her perfect teeth. I wondered if she knew, wherever she was. I wondered if she sat straight up in bed and screamed and clutched her empty belly. I closed my eyes and willed it, willed her to remember everything all at once, a nightmare to burn her days. I prayed that she would never be able to love anybody, no matter how she tried, not anybody, ever.
I made love to Kayla that night in the back seat of the Galaxy. She was soft and warm and melted underneath me. Afterward she cried, shivering and kissing my face and neck and shoulders. I wanted to tell her not to give in, not to love me, not to let go of herself like this. But I didn’t. I held her gently and stared at the condensation on the back windshield and beyond to the snow sifting quietly down all around us.