By Susan Taylor Chehak
The snow has come early this year. They’re saying it’s going to be a terrible winter. The climate has been having a tantrum from all our neglect, all our abuse. Global warming, is that it?
I’m in mourning, so in a way I welcome the freeze. It seems like it’s going to fit in with my grief just right.
I’m lonely, that’s what.
And I’m a little bit sorry too.
I’m not even fifty yet, and that’s much too young for this feeling that maybe the end is here. The end is near. That I’m reaching a limit of some kind.
And I wonder sometimes whether that makes me happy in a way. Does it?
I am a weaver. That is, I have recently become a weaver. I call myself a textile artist on my cards and on my website, which is a blog that hasn’t been updated for months now. I don’t remember the password. But it doesn’t matter.
I used to sell my work in a gift shop in town, and for a while I was able to eke out a living that way, just enough to pay the bills. Now I don’t even need it anymore, so what’s the point? I have more than enough to pay the bills. My ship has come in by way of an inheritance that changes everything.
So I could be happy. That security might be enough.
The woman from the gift shop has called. Old Mrs. Daugherty. She wants to know about the Christmas things. When will I be bringing them in? And: I can’t wait to see what you’ve done this year!
Mrs. Daugherty is a dear old woman with a lovely little shop that smells like flowers and spices and caramels and cream.
But I have nothing for her. I’ve stalled. There’s a barely-begun green linen dish towel gathering dust on the loom.
It’s the same color green as a bottle of red wine.
I pour a glass.
I lie back against the pillow.
I turn up the music.
I close my eyes. Ah, yes, I think. This. Ah, this.
Last summer it was all very different. It was all all right. I can look back now and think: There. Right there. That’s when it all began.
The beginning of the end.
I’m sure I can put my finger on the exact moment.
It was the Fourth of July weekend. The Sunday before the holiday, and there was to be the usual pancake breakfast at the fire station. My brother wanted to go. I’d have been happy to cook for him myself. We had fresh eggs from the market. I could’ve made a fruit salad.
The kitchen was dazzling with light. There was a bunch of gaudy flowers from the garden nodding in one of Mother’s crystal vases on the table. Summer was at its first height and all those days lay before us.
But Patrick got antsy. He wanted to go places. He wanted to see people. He was grinning like a puppy, and would have gone on his own without me, so I folded the newspaper, put on my shoes, ran my fingers through my hair.
I was wearing a new red blouse. Blue sweater. White shorts. I was trying to be patriotic, but Patrick was all in dull, dark brown. His mind was on the pancakes.
And afterward maybe we could stop in at the antique mart? He wanted to look for more of the weird saltshakers and books that he collected, as well as the old portrait photographs.
These had become his passion lately. He shuffled through them like playing cards. I asked him why and he shrugged: Dunno. I just like to look at them, I guess.
The place was crowded because I’d dawdled, and so we were late and the line was long. Patrick took a spot at the end, behind an elderly couple. She was scrawny in a white lace dress. He was bent crooked in suspenders and a white T-shirt and old blue jeans two sizes too big for him. The line moved slowly. Someone was twanging at a banjo somewhere out of sight.
The firemen and their families were serving up the food. This was real Americana. Patrick loved it. I was hot and dizzy with hunger in the heat.
There was a portable toilet at the edge of the lawn, but there was also a line for that, so I had to wait a bit first. When I came back I could see that Patrick had moved forward some. He was making progress at least, while enthusiastically conversing about nothing with the pair of geriatrics ahead.
And here’s the moment, as I get closer.
I can look back with confidence now and say: Then! That was when.
A cloud drifts over the sun, and everything seems to go to black and white and gray, and Patrick is laughing at something the old woman has said when this guy comes up close behind him, shaking his fist. He raises his middle finger, pumping it in anger behind Patrick’s back, behind Patrick’s head. Then as this guy turns away, he’s face to face with me and he says: I fucking hate that fucking guy.
But why? That’s my brother.
And he leans in close. His breath is hot in my face: Well, then I fucking hate your fucking brother.
Like a slap.
I told Patrick. I pointed at the guy, who was elbowing his way away from us through the crowd. He looked back over his shoulder just once to glare at me before he disappeared.
Patrick was calm. He said simply: He must have thought I was someone else. And then he was smiling again, like it was nothing. While I searched the faces, trying to find that one, to memorize it so that if I ever saw it again I could ask someone: Who is that?
I don’t remember much else about the day, except it rained that afternoon and the garden went limp. We didn’t stay long at the breakfast. By the time we got to them, the pancakes had gone cold.
The guy must have thought Patrick was someone else.
But I couldn’t stop worrying it: What had happened? Why had he said that anyway?
Mother had died earlier, in the spring. She went easily, peacefully, if dying can be peaceful. Anyway, she didn’t struggle, she succumbed. And there was a smile on her face, though Patrick insisted that was just some kind of rictus setting in.
I visited the cemetery now and then. Patrick didn’t know. I didn’t dare bring up the subject of heaven or an afterlife or a better place or anything else so comforting or kind. He wouldn’t have had any of that, especially not from me. He used to only just roll his eyes at such drivel, as he called it, but after Mother was gone he got to slamming his fist about it, which made me worry for the crockery.
He was even more insufferable than usual when it came time to divide up our mother’s stuff. The booty, he called it, with a pirate’s swagger and sneer. His strategy was to pretend he didn’t care and, seeing when I had my eye on something, he’d take it for himself before I got the chance. I knew he’d just get rid of it, but I figured I could always go down to the thrift shop, find it there, and buy it back. I picked up on his tactics pretty quickly, anyway, and was able to distract him pretty well, so in the end I got the loom and the other craft supplies that had supported Mother’s hobbies.
He laughed at that too. Woman’s work, he said. Busy hands, he croaked. Pretending to be the devil, raising his fists up over his head, looming over me and cackling: Heh heh heh.
My brother Patrick was only eighteen months younger than me. We’d been close as kids, or so the story went. My memory is vague. But there did come a time that I can clearly recall when he turned his back on me for good. When the rage and revulsion first boiled up in him and spilled over onto me. Mother tried to explain it away by blaming a boy who came by and became Patrick’s friend and told him: You can’t play with girls. Especially not her. Your sister.
Later that same boy turned on Patrick too, but Patrick forgot that and continued to protect his self-esteem by keeping a safe distance from me. All I had to do was look at him too hard or for too long to send him off into conniptions.
But this was all so long ago. And we were orphans now, alone in the world, and so we needed each other, loved each other, didn’t we?
We’re blood! I said.
And he collapsed at that. Like a balloon with the air squeezed out. Or anyway he seemed to.
That’s when he told me he’d been kicked out of his apartment for something he did or didn’t do. I don’t know. It wasn’t clear and I didn’t press. He wanted to come and live with me. And wasn’t that how it should be? Neither of us was married, though he’d had a wife once upon a time. She’d left him and there’d been no children. And I’d always been on my own.
When I was drunk, I said: I need you.
But he was drunk too and a little deaf, so when he answered: What? I corrected it. We need each other, Patrick. You know we do.
The truth is, I enjoyed his company. I really did. At first, anyway.
He drank beer; I drank wine. He thought I was fancy. I thought he was crude. And each of us was envious of the other. He of my education and my manners. Me of his ease and his carelessness. He, my restraint. Me, his freedom.
In the beginning this made for lively conversations, which soon enough soured into arguments, and then began to sink to all-out fighting as our long days and nights together wore on.
Mornings we were sheepish. I apologized. He was glum, mad at his own self most likely, but I felt his self-loathing turn outward onto me. And so we twisted and turned in the fickle winds of our own misunderstandings.
He left the kitchen a mess, but blamed me for it. Because I was too fussy, he said. Claimed I couldn’t wait five minutes but had to have it all spruced up right now.
He was lazy.
I was industrious.
In the end he stopped talking to me altogether, and then his silence filled the house so I thought I was going deaf.
This was not how it was supposed to be.
I stood in the doorway and watched him sleeping on my couch. The TV was on without sound. I listened to his breathing, heavy and slow. When he snorted it shook him so he dropped the TV remote. Which woke him up. He opened his eyes. They were very blue, always had been. He looked at me and that was when I knew: he’d become a stranger to me. I felt his footsteps shake the house when he walked down the hall to the bathroom.
What followed then were days and days of silence. His silence, which he kept, his lips so firmly closed I soon enough quit trying to break it for him with words of my own, flowing out, then slowing, slipping, stopping. What was the point? He was a brick, hard and square and no entry point that I could see. So I shut my own self down too, and then we were two bricks in front of the TV, at the table, going up and down the stairs, or passing in the hall.
And then one day I was off on my own at the grocery store to pick up some of his favorite foods. There was to be a football game on TV that night. I thought I’d stock up for it—chips and cheese and beer—and put a spread out for him that he wouldn’t be able to resist. I was considering: Why not fatten him up? Let him be a brick in a chair and let it creep up on him, the pounds, the blood pressure, the cholesterol, the stress.
I went from the shelves of chips and cookies to the dairy cases at the back.
And there he was, in the aisle, sweeping: that angry guy from the pancake breakfast. I recognized him immediately, though he looked younger somehow. I reached past him for the 4% cottage cheese and a bottle of whole milk. He didn’t seem to know who I was, and I didn’t tell him.
I paid for my groceries and went out to the parking lot, and while I was there I accidentally-on-purpose dropped my bag so the glass broke and the milk spilled and the rest of it went rolling off every which way. Someone called for the guy with the broom, and he came out to help me salvage what I could. The manager wanted to replace my damaged goods, no charge, but I said that wouldn’t be necessary. The guy helped me into my car. He patted me on the shoulder and he said: Now you be careful, ma’am. And: You take care of yourself. And: You have a blessed day.
As I drove away I saw him with his broom; he was sweeping up my mess.
When I got home there was Patrick, the brick. I put away the groceries with great care. Then I went up to his room and tore into his things. Then I went back downstairs and I told him, very carefully, that if he did not leave—Now!—I was going to call the police and have him forcibly removed.
Patrick made it worse by complaining that he had nowhere to go.
That’s not my problem! I said. And: Find someplace. And: Don’t you know anyone? And: Don’t you have any friends?
I thrilled at the way he cowered before me, how he shielded his eyes with his hands, how his whole body trembled, how his mouth puckered, how he sucked air in and out like a fish.
What Patrick did have was our dad’s tent and sleeping bag and his own pillow and a kerosene lamp. It would just have to be enough. He piled the wheelbarrow with all that and his clothes and his saltshakers, books, and photographs, and he pushed it across the lawn and off into the woods behind the house. Later, when it was dark, I saw the light of his lamp and knew he’d be all right.
I felt bad, but not that bad.
I lay in my bed and thought about the guy at the store. Maybe I’d go back there again tomorrow to look for him. Maybe I’d tell him who I was. Maybe I’d say: Hey, I fucking hate my fucking brother too, and we’d have that in common, maybe enough for him to want to invite me out for dinner or across the street for a drink.
While out there in the woods, Patrick was setting himself on fire.
First he was running across the field and bellowing my name. Then he was in the yard and rolling in the grass.
I’d taken a sleeping pill, so what? I’ve read that sleep is important for proper brain function, especially as we age. Anyway, maybe it took me a while to get down there. And when I did, at first I didn’t understand what was going on. I thought he was drunk. He was bawling like a baby. I didn’t know why and I didn’t know what to do.
Sometimes I wonder if he might have been all right if only I’d taken him seriously right from the start, but I’ll never know because I didn’t. I was so angry. I thought: Let him rot. I turned around and I went back upstairs and I left him where he was. I put plugs in my ears and a mask over my eyes and went right back to sleep.
In the morning I looked out the window to see that he was still out there in the grass. Passed out, I thought with some contempt. I’d already decided my brother wasn’t my problem anymore, so I left him as he was for a while, considering it a kindness to let him sleep it off there in the soft grass in the shade of the willow tree. But when two hours went by and I stared at him long and hard but he still didn’t stir and he still didn’t wake, then I began to have this feeling, it crept around all over me, and I couldn’t shake it, so I put on my robe and I fixed a cup of coffee to take out to him, with a splash of whiskey, the way he liked it.
But when I opened the door and smelled the smoke…
It wasn’t that I knew, exactly. Only that I began to know. The knowledge came over me like a shadow from the woods, and my mind went blank and all sensation shut down while I was standing over him and saying his name: Patrick? Then, louder: Patrick?
I dropped the coffee. I ran back to the house. I called 911.
The ambulance wailing. The neighbors watching. Paramedics and policemen. All that.
We went out into the woods then and found the collapsed tent and the overturned lamp and the charred sleeping bag and the empty beer cans and all his other stuff. The policemen shook their heads and said it was a lucky miracle my brother hadn’t set the whole woods and grass and house on fire while he was at it.
I guess I am blessed, that’s what.
Susan Taylor Chehak is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the author of several novels, including The Great Disappointment, Smithereens, The Story of Annie D., and Harmony. Her most recent publications include a collection of short stories, It’s Not About the Dog, and a new novel, The Minor Apocalypse of Meena Krejci. Susan grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, lives occasionally in Toronto, and at present calls Colorado home.