Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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He walks with a poplar cane along the sagging fence line, his shoulders hunched, his steps as tentative as an old man’s. From where I stand on the porch of our family’s rented home, you wouldn’t know he was just sixteen. I watch as my older brother Darren meanders over a grassy hummock and stops, then turns and stares in my direction, as if my spying on him has made a sound that he can detect from a hundred yards away. He never took aimless walks before the accident. He was always revved up and ready for the next farm chore or six-pack of Schlitz. But since he got out of the hospital two days ago, he’s moved at the pace of a country gentleman with time to spare.
It’s 1981, and I’m twelve. My father and my oldest sibling, Derrick, are laboring in the spring fields. Darren had just gotten his driver’s license when he suffered his traumatic brain injury. He looks toward a line of pine trees against the blue horizon. The talk of tornadoes has started earlier than usual this year. My family is always on alert, ready to scamper into the basement if a funnel cloud appears. The weather this spring might turn out to be glorious, with gentle rains over many days feeding the seed already in the ground, or it could be a disaster, with cows picked up and dropped in bloody heaps across the county.
Darren’s shaved head, sunken eyes, and vacant expression are as terrifying to me as any storm that might be brewing over this flat and fertile Indiana land. I’ve always looked up to Darren. He taught me how to drive a tractor, harrowing the dirt until the soil was smooth, making perfect spirals in the field. He taught me how to stay clean while feeding the hogs in the morning so that I didn’t go to school smelling like shit. He taught me how to farm and not fear storms. I wanted to be like him, a rising star in the local FFA — Future Farmers of America — capable of judging livestock as well as any auctioneer, but we both knew I was more suited to writing in my journal and composing the rhyming poems I showed only to him. I depend on his opinion and on his ability to make me feel safe while our folks both work double shifts to keep us afloat. We’re always behind on bills, a lackluster harvest giving way to an overly leveraged spring and the likelihood of another broke autumn. This farm isn’t really ours. We rent it along with the house, and the landlord gets most of the profit.
I’m scared now because so little of the Darren I’ve always known seems to remain in his weakened body. I can’t remember ever having been more frightened by a change in someone. I understand that we should expect “personality inconsistencies,” as the emergency-room doctor said, but it’s as if an entirely new brother came home with us from the Wabash County Hospital.
Five days ago Darren leapt from a six-foot-tall livestock chute on a dare. He and his friends in the FFA chapter were joking around between swine-judging trials. They are the best in the state, or close to it. Darren could recite all the swine breeds in alphabetical order and quickly render scores in categories like “Best Cross Bred Gilt” and “Finest Pure Bred Duroc Barrow.” His friends told the story of his accident over and over: The chute was inside a building, and Darren miscalculated his leap and struck his head on a rafter in midair. When he stood up after his fall, his hands clutched his head, and his face was as white as paper. Then he moved his hands, and red blood gushed down his cheeks and along his neck, soaking his FFA jacket. He’d cracked his cranium: seventy stitches inside and two hundred on the outside. By the time the ambulance got him to the hospital, he’d lost three pints of blood.
When Darren was released, the doctor told us he might have a permanent speech impediment and that the paralysis on one side of his body could worsen. “He might recover fully, or this could be it,” the doctor said, ignoring Darren’s presence. Darren smiled weakly, with only half his mouth.
Now that Darren is home, Dad is back at work at the ceiling-tile factory — he had called in sick for several days — and Mom is back to waitressing at a greasy burger joint called Ben’s Food. She brings home oily brown bags full of crinkle-cut fries and double cheeseburgers to build up her injured son’s strength, but Darren will only nibble at the meals. He’s strangely cautious about what he eats and often smiles for no reason. He’s developed an odd tic in which he inexplicably taps his wrist. He stares at electrical outlets and enjoys switching the lights on and off, checking extension cords, and inspecting the fuse box. When Mom and Dad aren’t home, Derrick, our sisters Dina and Dana, and I try to get Darren to eat, but he continues losing weight and acting like a ghost. One night I say to Mom while we’re drying dishes, “It’s like he thinks none of this is real.” She glances up from a plate she’s wiping and looks at me as if I were the one with the head injury.
Another evening, when we’re all home except for Dad, who’s working overtime to pay Darren’s hospital bills, Darren asks Mom why he can’t operate a tractor or spread manure or drive into town for a root beer. He has to labor to pronounce each syllable. Mom tries to explain that he’s been hurt and needs to be patient while his head heals, that things will come back to him. Darren stares at her with dark, wild eyes, then pulls a quarter from his pocket. He holds his hand out, palm up, and places the coin on his wrist. When he clenches his fist, a tendon goes rigid, and the coin flips from tails to heads and lands perfectly on his pale skin. Then he smiles at Mom and tucks the quarter back into his pocket.
On the television I see a radar map of Indiana, a long line rotating over it like an accelerated clock hand, revealing purple spots of dangerous weather every few seconds. Mom tells us to turn up the volume. The weatherman sounds tense as he describes conditions favorable for strong lightning storms, some of which may produce tornadoes. Darren smiles at the news, rubbing his hand over the stubble on his head. Since the accident, it’s as if electricity were his friend. He’s given up reading Zane Grey westerns for thick library books on high-voltage engineering. He walks over to the television and turns it off, then back on, touching his fingertips to the screen to feel the static.
For the next two weeks I continue spying on Darren from a distance. He’s developed an interest in butterflies and pokes at puddles with his cane, then stares at the ripples. He never cared about any of this when he was president of his FFA chapter, the king of swine judging. He doesn’t drink anymore or smoke Salems. The massive scar atop his head is a glistening pink ridge, and it’s hard not to stare at it. Darren is at home by himself during the day, recuperating while the rest of us go to school and Mom and Dad go to work. I imagine him as a phantom, taking long walks and honing skills that are not of this world. On the way home from school on the bus, I wonder if he’ll ever get better. Dina and Dana sit two rows in front of me. When we get back, they’ll fix Darren cinnamon toast as Mom instructed. Derrick will watch the skies with Dad, and we will all wait to see if the weather — and Darren — will improve.
Five years ago I had two fingers mangled in a farming accident: an auger nearly cut them off. Darren helped me soak my hand twice a day in Epsom salts. The pain was excruciating, as if my nerves had been set on fire. He sat with me every morning and evening, holding my good hand and trying to distract me as our mother lowered the other hand — the injured one — into the hot water, from which it emerged lobster red. When an infection threatened to take my entire hand, Darren told Mom to increase the Epsom salts and encouraged me to soak it longer than was comfortable. In the end my hand was saved, and I gave Darren the credit.
Now I want more than anything else to repay the favor, but I don’t know how to be strong like him. Since he cracked his skull, I feel an utterly desperate sadness when I’m around him, and I can’t speak. I’m ashamed I can’t help him more.
It’s Saturday and my turn to watch Darren. Recently he’s been building strange machines in the garage. The latest uses the barometer from the fence post behind the house and a tractor battery. I find him at the workbench, the March weather humid and thick, steel-gray clouds roiling in the west, the green sky a telltale warning of approaching storms. It’s early morning, and I’ve brought him a cheese biscuit. His hair has mostly grown back except over that monstrous scar, like a topographical ridge. Darren looks down at the biscuit and smiles the way he does now at everything. Then he places the plate on a stool and pulls me by the arm to the workbench. He points to the barometer, whose needle is swirling rapidly. “What?” I ask. Darren only grins and removes the battery cables: the barometer needle falls flat.
Mom and the girls are in town, shopping for groceries with a stack of coupons as thick as a brick. Derrick and Dad are trying to put some soybeans in the ground before the storm hits. At 4 PM Mom and Dad will both leave to work the late shift.
I sit down on an old harrow, my tailbone tender from riding the tractor yesterday, replacing Darren in the fields. He takes a bite of the biscuit and swallows with effort. Just two weeks ago he was drinking whiskey and blasting heavy metal; now it seems my brother is content to watch the barometer, wiping his spotless hands every few seconds on a red shop cloth. I’m confused by his intense focus, the way he behaves as if nothing else exists except what’s in front of him.
“Hey,” I say, and Darren slowly turns toward me, his face solemn, no grin. He seems completely disconnected from our family, the barn, the farm. Through the window above the workbench, the morning sky looks more like dusk, and fat drops of rain begin to splat against the panes. The wind picks up and howls over the shingled barn, and we hear what sounds like coins and even full cans of soup hitting the roof in a rapid-fire barrage. Twigs, then branches somersault past the window, and bright-green leaves are plastered to the glass. Enunciating slowly, Darren says, “It’s a storm, Dougie.”
“Come on,” I say. I take his hand, and we head out the barn door, staying under the eaves and overhangs until we’re near the house. Then we make a stooped run for the basement. I sling the double doors open and push Darren ahead of me into the dark. The space smells of soft potatoes and wet moss. We collapse onto a stack of dusty gunnysacks next to the flickering gas flame of the water heater. Dim light seeps in through a single small window. I hear my brother patting his jacket, and he pulls something from his pocket. The lighter catches on the second try. He holds up the Zippo as if it might be the last source of light on the planet, and the orange glow reveals a scared expression on his face.
“The girls?” he says.
I tell him they’ll be fine. They’re at the grocery store in Wabash, probably in some walk-in cooler, surrounded by men and women accustomed to emergencies.
Darren nods but doesn’t look reassured. “Where’s Dad?” he asks.
I’m thrown by this reversal of our regular roles: he’s usually the smart and informed older brother, and I’m the one asking questions. With Darren bewildered and frightened, I have to be the one with the answers, and I’m woefully unprepared. The wind rips past the basement doors. My brother scooches closer. The floor above us shimmies and groans. I find some comfort in the fact that there are still flashes of lightning and crackling thunder. The storm hasn’t gone silent, something we’ve been told over and over may signal that we have only a few seconds before a funnel cloud uproots trees and splits the house in two. Darren stands and walks over to the ground-level window.
“Get away from there,” I hiss.
Darren’s back appears straighter. I can’t see his cane or recall what’s happened to it. A resounding crash shakes the house to its foundation. Part of me wishes the whole goddamn place — outbuildings, too — would be swept away, so we could start over. Maybe something heavy could hit Darren’s head and turn him back to normal.
Darren smiles at me and taps his wrist. “You worry too much, Dougie. We’re safe,” he says. Something smacks against the house outside. I imagine roof shingles being torn off, our meager garden scooped up and carried into the dark sky. We sit side by side on the mound of burlap as the storm peaks. Flying debris cracks the window. I have to keep shifting my weight on the sacks since my tailbone is still sore. Darren puts his arm around me.
I tell him I’m not worried about us. (Something in my gut resents him for thinking I care only about our own predicament.) I explain that I’m thinking of Dad and Derrick out in the fields with nowhere to hide but a shallow ditch. Darren nods, and in the half-light I can see his shiny scar.
Hail pelts the house, and I imagine the seed it’s taken us weeks to plant washed into culverts, but my brother just marvels at the spectacle.
I suggest to Darren that we focus our thoughts on Dad and Derrick to keep them safe. Darren gives me a look like some cornered, underground creature that his old self would have poked with a stick or popped in the temple with a .22 rifle, and I realize it’s cruel to force him back to reality like this. Another gust of wind vibrates the floor beams. Darren gets up and paces, his walking cane back in his hand. I want him to be strong and aloof, the way he used to be, or even fired up on booze. He was a relentless worker, always ready to coax life from the soil for another season and help our parents make ends meet. Now my brother shoves his clenched fist into his mouth, and I know he’s crying. I am, too. We whimper in the cellar like feral pups while the storm rages outside. Darren’s cane leans loosely against his leg, his Levi’s worn to the color of a winter sky.
“I know I’m not the same,” he struggles to say, his brown eyes filled with tears, “but I’m gonna get back to being me.”
The cane falls to the floor, and he walks toward me with a limp that seems even more severe than usual. I can’t imagine he’ll ever be as smart and resourceful as before.
We stay hunkered in the cellar until the doors creak open, and the space is filled with light. Dad and Derrick appear, wet but unharmed. I help Darren climb the stairs to a cloudy but calm late morning. Mom and the girls come home an hour later, and we all eat lunch together and talk about the storm. Darren makes Mom tell him several times about the downed electrical lines, but she can’t answer his questions about the transformers or power stations. That night Darren stays up late in our shared bedroom, picking lint from his FFA jacket and putting mink oil on his work boots.
In some ways I continue to feel like Darren’s older brother. I help him remember the names of tools: crescent wrench, grease gun, log chain. I show him where the diesel fuel is kept and how the John Deere front loader starts. At night in our bedroom we review what he learned that day: everything from our mother’s maiden name to how the accident happened. I tell the story just the way his friends did. (They’ve stayed away, afraid to see how he’s changed.) Sometimes he asks me to read him some of my poetry, and when I do, he nods and smiles and asks if I think words like autumn and loam sound funny. We laugh and stay up later than we should, something we rarely did before the accident.
One day after school Darren is watching me make bologna-and-cheese sandwiches when he says, “I remember all the hog breeds!” I fall asleep that night listening to him name them, the list out of order but complete: Landrace, Yorkshire, Poland China, Duroc . . .
Two months after the accident, Darren is moving more quickly. The limp is receding daily, and during chores it’s difficult for me to keep up with him. Only once today does he have to ask me a question — about the ratio of shelled corn to grower meal in the hog feed we’re supposed to grind. Before I can answer, he slaps his head and says, “Eighty-twenty!”
His hair has grown back more reddish than before, and the dark bags under his eyes have gradually faded. I no longer need to make his meals or show him where we keep the cereal or how to fasten the pearl snaps on his shirt. I see less of Darren as he recuperates, and I can barely admit to myself that part of me wanted him to stay a little bit dependent on me. I miss the time we had together. As Darren’s condition improves, I don’t have an excuse to stay by his side. I slip into the younger-brother role, his friends return, and Darren goes back to wearing his FFA jacket and judging livestock.
Fall arrives, and we work in the fields to bring in the harvest. For a moment Darren might still forget how to run the augers or operate the combine, but mostly he is his old competent self, down to the hint of beer on his breath underneath the coffee and cigarette smoke. But he continues to check out books from the school library on amps, switches, and voltage, poring over circuit schematics at night. He tinkers and tests, and whenever we blow a fuse, it’s Darren who slips into the basement to replace it. He turns seventeen that winter, and I become a teenager.
On a cold March morning Darren pulls me from bed to go for a ride around the county with him. He’s been driving again for a couple of months — a pickup on the roads, not just tractors in the fields — and he relishes it. We stop at a gas station for cold pops and bags of chips. The rich spring fields, ready for planting, fly by our windows. It’s after lunch by the time we get back home.
The next day, a Sunday, is overcast. I’m up at dawn, sitting on the porch and tying the laces of my work boots when I spy Darren out along the fence line, wearing his FFA jacket and walking without a cane. I go down the porch steps, avoiding the patches of ice on them, and cross the gravel driveway, all the while keeping my eye on my brother. The sun’s first rays bounce over the pasture. The weather is calm, but it might change. March is almost over, and the storms could come early again this year. As I watch Darren stroll along the pasture, something wells up in me: a kind of sharp longing that I cannot name. For a brief period of time I was able to give him the sense of security he’s always provided me. I had a glimpse of what it’s like to be the older brother, to be looked up to for my sturdiness.
Darren turns toward me, and though we can’t make eye contact from this distance, he beckons me to join him, and I race over. The weeds are coated in hoarfrost, and by the time I’ve crossed the field to where my brother stands, my cuffs and work boots are soaked. We finish his walk together, talking about all the chores we have ahead of us.