Fiction

Short Story: Brothers

The following is an excerpt from

Houses and Backyards: A Collection of Stories

by Neal Eric Yeomans

Brothers

Copyright ® Neal Eric Yeomans

One of my earliest memories is of my brother pulling me up the steep slope of Shoreby Hill in the Radio Flyer. I’m about six years old and Jonathan is nine. We had taken the wagon out to play. It was the summertime. I remember that afternoon was scorching.

We had finally made it to the top of the hill. Our goal had been accomplished. The town—our town—was spread out below us, gleaming under an August sun. A wind stirred, blowing the summer smells in my face. Jonathan stretched out his arms like some great bird and his shadow was long on the pavement. I put my arms out too, mimicking my big brother. The both of us were, for that moment anyway, rulers of the world.

Jonathan lowered his arms and looked over at me. He smiled that mischievous smile of his. “You want to know what it is like to fly, Mikey?” he asked me.

I was confused. I laughed. My brother was my hero even then. If anyone knew how to fly, it was him.

He came around to the back of the wagon. He began to push me towards the edge of the hill. I protested—no, no, no—but behind those pleadings was laughter. I trusted Jonathan more than anyone. I knew that I would be able to fly with him.

“Hold on,” Jonathan said as he jumped in the wagon with me.

The Radio Flyer dropped into space.

Trees and houses passed by in a blur. The hot summer wind blew in my face. I felt the solid, reassuring form of my brother’s body when I leaned back into him. I felt his breath on my neck. “Put your arms out again, Mikey,” he told me. “Put ‘em out. Quick.”

Jonathan held the rusted handle with his hands. He had total control. He wasn’t going to let anything happen to me.

More houses. Trees. The pavement unraveled in front of us. The sun was shining bright.

I held out my arms. I was flying. I was a little kid and flying with my brother.

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We can’t fly forever. I know this now.

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I remember that time. I remember the house where Jonathan and I lived with our parents. I remember our street. I remember being small and afraid all the time. I remember Jonathan, my brother.

I remember. It was, looking back now, a wholly middle class upbringing in every way. We lived in a nice house in a nice town. Father was a system analyst. Mother was a homemaker. Christmases were spent visiting grandparents in Maine. Sometimes we ended our summer vacation with a week or two on Long Island, in a small rented cottage on a lake.

We all had our roles to play in this family. Dad was very much the working man, the provider. Mom was a TV dinner extraordinaire and cheerleader for everyone. I was the shy introvert, content to be around books instead of people. It was Jonathan who was the star, the shining light. The two of us couldn’t have been more different. Everything came naturally to Jonathan. He excelled in academics just as easily as he ran square-outs or hit homeruns. I was never blessed with such athletic prowess. Too small. Too scrawny. I wasn’t coordinated enough. I would sit with my parents in the stands, bundled up against the November cold and watch Jonathan go in for a touchdown under the bright lights while Mom and Dad and the rest of the crowd cheered him on. We grew up very much in this vein as well; he on the playing fields of life while I watched from the stands. Jonathan the star! Jonathan our light!

So what can be said about me? Not much. I jumped at every shadow. I wet the bed until I was twelve. I cried if anyone raised their voice to me. I got panic attacks if my homework was wrong. I was constantly on edge, convinced that I would meet some terrible end. Perhaps I would be struck down by a lightning-bolt out of a clear sky or fall victim to a serial killer who dumped the bodies of his young victims in rural creeks or maybe I would succumb to some unknown, incurable disease I didn’t even know I had. I just felt that I was tainted in some way.

There was something else, a possible reason for this sense of doom. It had to do with a certain feeling in the pit of my stomach. A revulsion. A joy. This feeling—a tingling that would spread throughout my whole body—would hit me at the most confusing of moments. When I was sitting behind Andy Simienkowicz on the school bus. When I was in the boys’ locker room changing after gym class or when I was watching Jonathan—shirtless and with a golden brown July tan—as he shingled the garage roof with Dad in the summer. The flush of red my face would turn if an attractive older man smiled at me while I waited outside a department store in the mall for my mother. The nights I would lay in bed looking up at the ceiling and imagine a boy lying beside me, a boy who was unknown to me at the time. A revulsion. A joy.

In short, I was gay. And while I have come to accept this part of me—actually I accepted it rather early on compared to most men—at that time I was certain it was the source of all that was wrong with me. This was why I was shy, scared. Here was the reason bullies sought me out. Finally I knew the explanation for my parents’ long, sad stares whenever I entered a room.

Only Jonathan seemed to care about me. I was like some little bird with a broken wing that he was taking care of; it was unclear if I was ever going to be able to fly again. I got the sense that my brother seemed to know about me before anyone else did, including our parents. I think he knew me before I even knew myself. How safe I felt with my brother! How perfect the world was when we were together!

The memories come back to me with awesome vividness. I can recall the dazzle of our life together. I wrote this poem soon after Jonathan died:

What sadness it is to still remember,

What joy it is to still remember,

O brother! I still love you!

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As I’ve stated, I was a reader. A voracious one. I read anything – Salinger, Charles Dickens, Tolkien – and can recall whole rainy afternoons stretched out on the sofa in the living room, unaware of the tinkling on the windowpane or the day passing into night around me. Mom always said that I would ruin my eyes reading in the dark.

With my nose constantly in a book, it was Jonathan who told me that I would eventually write one someday. “I bet you will,” he told me once. “All this reading you do, you are bound to write something.”

“I don’t know what I would write about.”

Jonathan just smiled that mischievous smile that I knew so well by this point. “Write about me,” he said.

Even then Jonathan knew what I would be doing for the rest of my life!

My first attempts at fiction were (to put it bluntly) utter shit. I spent hours up in my bedroom, sitting at my cluttered desk trying to dream up my own version of a Middle Earth, complete with wizards, fair-haired maidens, flying dragons and epic battle scenes. It wasn’t working. Dreaming up a story like that was one thing, writing it proved to be quite another. It was hopeless. I gave Jonathan the first five pages that I wrote one afternoon.

“You’re trying too hard,” he said when he had finished reading and had come back into my bedroom.

I told him, “See this isn’t for me.”

He shook his head. “It is for you. You just got to write what you know in some way. Write about me. Write about us. All the material you will ever need is right here.”

How right Jonathan was again! When I look back now, he had already given me so much even then: our adventures in the Radio Flyer when we were younger, shoplifting candy and soda from Moody’s Pharmacy downtown, the whispering late at night when I would get into bed with him after one particularly terrifying nightmare. It was all there. It was my brother’s gift to me. A gift from a ghost.

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Nightmares. I was prone to them. It was very rare that I would be able to sleep through the night back then. I would awake at two, three in the morning drenched in sweat and my heart beating rapidly though a thin T-shirt. Sometimes I screamed out in the darkness.

It was Jonathan who always came to my rescue. The bedroom door would open and there he was, the reassuring light from the hallway shining behind him like a light from Heaven. He would stay with me; tell me everything was okay. He would find an extra pair of shorts for me to wear and change the bed-sheets. He would stay with me until I fell back asleep. Jonathan never said anything to our parents.

One night I found myself in his room. I had been crying. I was angry. I was fourteen now and knew that I was too old to still be running to Jonathan after a bad dream. Yet here I was again.

He was in the bed, curled up into himself like an animal in hibernation. I heard the sounds of the storm outside. On TV a fat, friendly weatherman had called for heavy rains and damaging winds. I went over to the bed.

I looked down at my sleeping brother. I could see him just fine even in the dark bluish light of the room. Let me hold the image of him like this in my mind forever. His head on the pillow. His long bangs over his eyes. His face partially hidden in shadow. I touched my brother’s shoulder. “Jonathan,” I said, softly. He stirred a bit. I shook his shoulder a little more. “Jonathan.”

His eyes opened slightly. He was groggy. “Wh…what?”

“It’s me,” I said. I could hear my voice trembling. In a minute I would cry. “Can…can I stay with you tonight?”

He sat up, turned on the bedside lamp. He looked at me. “Was it another nightmare?”

I stood in front of him. I only had on a T-shirt and boxer shorts. I was cold. “Yeah. I guess.”

“Come on.”

I got in the bed. Jonathan reached across me and shut off the light. The room was in blue darkness again. I laid there with my brother. I stared up at the ceiling. The wind screamed. The storm wasn’t letting up.

“Mikey?”

“Yeah?”

“They’re not real, you know. Those nightmares. You just have to keep telling yourself that.”

I didn’t say anything. I listened to the sound of the rain. I suddenly realized that I was lying next to the boy from all my dreams. My good dreams. That boy was my brother. “Jonathan?”

“What?”

“Do you promise that things will never change between us?”

“Mikey, what are you talking about?” His voice was low, almost a whisper now.

“You will be graduating soon, go off to college somewhere. I’ll be here. You will come home all different and I’ll still be the same.” I turned on my side, away from him. I shut my eyes. I was crying again.

Jonathan put his arm around me, drew me close to him. He was very warm. “Is that what has been bothering you, Mikey? You are scared that things will change between us.” I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. “We will always be brothers,” he told me. “I promise.”

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In the morning we went outside to see the damage. A thick fog hung over everything. The winds had brought down some branches and power lines. A large branch had fallen on Mrs. Enright’s car across the street. It took three guys from the fire department and a chainsaw to remove the fallen limb and free her smashed vehicle. For weeks afterward Mrs. Enright’s station wagon sat in her driveway all broken up and ready for the scrapyard. Jonathan and I wandered around this ghostly wasteland of a neighborhood. We walked up and down the streets. On Blueberry Lane we found a bird on the sidewalk. The bird was dead. That bird would never fly again.

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Jonathan always had friends. I wasn’t surprised by all the people he seemed to know and by all the people who seemed to know him. Jonathan could hold his own with his peers as well as adults. Our parents’ friends loved him. At dinner parties I would watch him hold court over an entire room. He told jokes that were actually funny, expounded on his favorite players on the New England Patriots, gave scathing critiques about the United States involvement in the Middle East and its foreign policy in general, and talked about his impending move to New York City where he had been accepted at Columbia University on a full academic scholarship. To listen to Jonathan speak about anything was to be under a kind of hypnotist’s spell.

I knew his friends by sight—tall and solidly built jocks with full beards. I felt intimidated by these kids. I would pass them in the halls at school. They waved and sometimes gave me a slap on the back or shoulder. They all knew that I was Jonathan’s little brother.

So I wasn’t surprised that Jonathan had many friends. I wasn’t even shocked to find out that a lot of those friends included many girls. He always had girls around him.

One night during our final summer together—shortly after he graduated—I asked Jonathan a question that I desperately needed an answer on. “Have you ever done anything with any of those girls you go around with?”

He looked at me. There was that smile again. We sat in his red pick-up truck (his graduation present from our parents) behind the rec center. The streets were deserted. It was late. The town was asleep. He rolled a joint and we smoked and laughed and Jonathan told me everything. I didn’t want that night to end.

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“I finished a story.”

Jonathan put the can of beer on one of the gravestones. “Yeah? When can I read it?”

I unzipped my backpack. I pulled out a stack of pages held together with a paperclip. “Now if you want.”

He took the small manuscript from me and began to read. I felt a twinge of nervousness. What would he think? I grabbed the can of beer and drank some more and watched how the sun made the granite gravestones glisten in the afternoon light. As scared as I was of everything back then, Saint Marc’s Cemetery was a place that never frightened me. Never. Jonathan and I had come up here often. We liked how quiet it was. We were in the presence of death. We smoked and drank out here and read the names of the long departed.

I thought of death. I thought about what it would be like to be dead and buried in the ground. I thought about…

“This is great Mikey.”

I looked over at Jonathan. He was smoking another cigarette. “Really?”

“Yeah. You pushed yourself with this one. I know it.”

I smiled. I had spent a few days on that story, working long hours and neglecting mom’s numerous requests to help her clean out the basement. During the time that I was writing nothing else mattered but the story. I was obsessed.

“Is the character of Archie based on Mr. Swanson who lives up the street? He’s about as huge as Mr. Swanson?”

“Yeah, I thought about what would happen if the town wanted to take his house away. There would be no place for him to go because he is so fat. He would go crazy.”

Jonathan gave my story back to me. “You have something Mikey. You’re a people watcher. You know that? Don’t stop watching.”

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The sounds of Manhattan traffic pull me out of the past. I am back in this apartment. I do not know what time it is. It is quiet in this apartment. This place holds no memories for me. I get up from the desk and go over to the window. I look out at the city skyline. Jonathan…Brother where are you?

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I have never forgotten that date. August 20th. How can I? Forgetting might happen to some people—maybe even to you—but it doesn’t for me.

I can still hear my mother’s screams. It was those terrible screams which woke me up that summer morning long ago. I thought I was in some kind of dream. Those screams couldn’t have come from a human-being. It took a few confused moments for the world to establish itself again: the morning light slanting in through the window, the pile of typed manuscript pages (I was working on another story) stacked neatly on my desk, the muffled voices coming from downstairs. I was fully awake. Even now there are still a few breaks in the film that I cannot account for; one minute I was in my bed listening to my mother’s anguished screams and the next I was downstairs in the living room where my sobbing father told me everything.

It was a story no one wanted to hear. Jonathan in his truck. He was coming home from a bonfire, the last party of the summer before he and his friends would all be going off to school. There was beer at this party and everyone thought they were more sober than the other person. The police officers at the scene of the accident had told my parents that it looked as though Jonathan had lost control; he swerved and hit a tree. My brother died instantly, I was told. He died while I was dreaming.

We buried Jonathan the week he was supposed to move to New York. Neighbors sent cards and flowers, letters expressing deep sorrow for our small family. The town paper ran a full page article on my brother and when football season started up again the local high school dedicated their first home game to Jonathan. Things changed in my family after that. The house became quiet. We became quiet. I started to hate our house.

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And now?

I am walking these city streets. I do not look at the faces of the people I pass. When I first came here I use to look for Jonathan in the crowds. I don’t do that anymore. I know that he is not here. He is not anywhere. I have finished my writing for the day. When I get back to the apartment I will call my parents. We will make small talk like always. We will try to stay on the line for as long as we can hold out. We will not bring up Jonathan. I am not in a hurry to get back to the apartment. I will walk these streets for a while. I will walk until it is dark. I like walking at night. Jonathan…Jonathan I hate you for leaving me. I will eventually find my way back to my street, the old apartment complex. I will go up to my floor—the lobby smelling of dampness and graffiti spray-painted on the walls—and let myself into my apartment with the key. In the darkness I will lay down on my bed. In the darkness I will see my brother’s face again. Jonathan…Jonathan I love you. In the darkness he will lay beside me. In the darkness we will sleep next to each other. In darkness. Forever in darkness.

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