That he pockets the candy bar is nothing new. I can handle that. Or, I can’t but there’s nothing I can do about it. What’s new is that he’s taken to wearing a red hoodie when he does it. And I’m so pissed about it that I can’t see anything else. Red and flagrant and pointless.
So I guess I make a sound. Something like what Ma would do.
“What? Can’t you just cool it until we’re outside?” He doesn’t look at me. His eyes are off my face for once, skipping over the convenience store racks. The girl behind the counter smiles at him. Of course. At least he doesn’t wink.
And then he fucking does.
“Put it back.” My jaw clicks. I have to stop grinding my teeth. Someday.
“This trip isn’t nearly as much fun as I thought it would be.” He sighs, tossing the Whatchamacallit back onto the rack. “Not yet.”
We don’t need anything here. They don’t even have Sunkist. It’s a crappy mom-n-pop in the asshole of Nebraska. For a hundred miles in any direction we can see everything that’s more than a couple of feet tall. All of it about as interesting as rust on a tractor. Garrett waves at the girl. I want to punch him. I want my knuckles to feel the hood when I do it, too. And that’s something he’d see coming as clearly as the snow out here.
As soon as we step outside, it starts. Snowflakes, fat and lethargic. My cheeks are burning, melting everything except for how much I don’t want to be here. And, how much I’d miss him if I hadn’t come. So, I’ll always be a little red-faced, but it won’t always be my problem. Pretty much no one believes me when I tell them it’s genetic. Not when they see him.
“Come on, dickhead.” His voice is muffled. I realize it’s because I’m still standing outside the car, staring into the snowfall like dumb turkeys drowning in the rain.
I get in. The hoodie’s coming off and the heater’s blasting. Before he tosses the sweatshirt over the seat, he pulls a candy bar from the pocket.
“You piece of shit.” I stare at him.
“What? I lifted this one before you noticed.” The wrapper crinkles, louder than the rice and chocolate inside. “Doesn’t’ count.”
His eyes flick away from me, lips smiling as they tug on the candy. And my jaw goes off again. As heat fills the car with the dried-leaves smell of the engine, I think of my knuckles. The bones and skin and need. And how no matter the reason…I can’t make myself wish they were part of another family’s fucked up legacy.
“Jesus Christ.” I mutter. Under his munching and the occasional side-glance, I roll my window down. Halfway. I stop when the jerking motion in my shoulder feels weird and childish. Then, I snatch the candy bar from him and chuck it into the parking lot.
Laughter makes the car bounce. Somehow that doesn’t seem childish at all. Not when he does it, and I don’t join in because it’s not fucking funny. Which is always.
“The idea was to grab two. One for you and one for me, dill-hole.” The crinkles around his eyes fill with tears. He’s still laughing when I roll the window back up. “Consider that one yours.”
“Can we go now?” I refuse to look at the candy, gathering snow outside my window. So, I look at the stubble on his chin, and the amused pinch of his eyebrows.
He nods, licking chocolate from his lips, and chuckles at me as the car juts out into the two-lane highway.
mostly inspired by Bon Iver’s “Blood Bank”
Well, I met you at the blood bank
We were looking at the bags
Wondering if any of the colors
Matched any of the names we knew on the tags
You said, see look that’s yours
Stacked on top with your brother’s
See how they resemble one another
Even in their plastic little covers
And I said I know it well
That secret that you knew but don’t know how to tell
It fucks with your honor and it teases your head
But you know that it’s good girl
‘Cause its running you with red
Now they have cuts and bruises. Now they're officially one-less.
I grunt a second before I wake up, like I’d been arguing in my dream and pushed it just into being awake. There’s an awful moment of limbo where the road is so bright, and the car so dark, that I can’t tell if it’s sunrise or sunset. Either way it’s blazing. Either way my knuckles are what made me groan, so I look down at the split skin, blinking the last bit of the nap from my eyes.
He hadn’t even shaved for it. Dad gone and sliding into a fire and he couldn’t drag a razor over his stupid face? And she’d looked at that beard like it was a present just for her, just for the “occasion.” Fucking figures. I flex my hand and it screams under the crusty skin. At least I got him good. And it makes it no better, not at all, that he looks like a tough-guy now, like Roadhouse tough, with his cheek scraped and swollen.
Garrett sees me eyeballing him and rolls down the window.
“Morning, buttercup.” He grumbles and pushes the lighter into its slot.
“Where are we?”
So I slept through Nevada. Thank God for small favors. Sitting up, I watch Garrett light a cigarette and start to miss the dumbest things so hard that it’d make me choke to say them: Sweet smoke (the kind from Miriam’s burn-pile), Dad’s flannel, the way our trees could catch and throw the sound of anything . . .I miss the guy he used to be. My bro.
This guy, he’s a dickhead, but only when people are looking.
“I can’t fucking believe you.” I croak. The seatbelt’s suddenly too tight across my gut while my jaw feels like a spring clamp.
“You were. . .” I rub the crud from the corners of my eyes. “You were supposed to be there for her. And you just . . . walked off.” So bright. The road is so bright there’s not way to cover my eyes that it doesn’t hurt straight through.
He makes a squishy sort of mouth, downturned, as if agreeing with me. I’m surprised I recognize it. So I go on.
“For what? A fuck?” I have to look at him, the right angle on the wrong face, but he has to squint into sunlight and cigarette smoke. Air howls through the open window. “You’re just . . .Jesus.”
“Come on. I went out back for a cigarette.” When he smiles I know it’s because, like me, he’s remembering the dude in the coveralls. The blonde, bumming his smokes and leaning into him against the ragged brick at the back of the parlor. But, he’s not remembering it the way I do. He can’t. And that smile’s as much for the way I launched at him, the fist I’d been saving up, as for sneaking a flirt during a goddamn funeral.
“Just one day, man.” I open my window so it’ll be that much louder in the car. Hard to think I was just sleeping. What had I dreamed about, fighting? “We needed you for just one fucking day.”
On the road, there’s black and silver and the edges of Utah. I look at the signs, the specks of other cars in the dawn haze, and it feels like ten hours before one of us pipes up. But it’s probably been ten minutes.
Garrett drops his head against the headrest, shoulders rolling and then setting. I wish he’d just smoke again, so I can turn away.
“That wasn’t dad in that oven.” He says. “You know that as well as I do.”
Dad’s in the hills, I think. Dad’s under the hood of this very car, with jays calling out to each other and Bethany sitting behind the wheel. Dad’s in mom, forever and ever.
But he’s right. Fuck the world, and fuck his pretentious beard and his wandering dick. Garrett’s right. Dad wasn’t there. And it’s the best thing he’s said to me in five years.
I was sleeping, but now I blink at the painful sliver of the road in front of us and feel that numbness start to drain.
We’re in Wyoming when it hits me. How he hits me. I’m nineteen and I realize I’ve never been punched by my brother. Not like he means it, and not like I do when I go for him.
I look over and he’s still sleeping with his knees crammed up against the dash.
So what? He’s never thrown hook without pulling it back, whatever that means. My jaw still hurts, but his cheek, even under the scrape, is mostly normal now.
Garrett snores loudly over Lilac Wine on the radio, and Wyoming is still as flat and yellow as it was when we came through two days ago. Who lives out here, anyway? Off on either side of the highway, every few miles, I see these bullet-trailers parked in the middle of Nowhere’s ass-crack and there are people in them. With satellite dishes. Who lives where you can’t tell if you’re coming or going? There’s not even a video store.
Over the brownish scabs on my knuckles, over the steering wheel of the car he never lets me drive, it hits me the way he never will.
Once she goes we’ll be alone. Like, I knew this all along, and it was hard not to after Beth, but it’s real now. Ma gets cancer, gets hit by a bus or finds that ditch everyone talks about, and it’s her just laying there on the other side of the fucking country.
We’ll be alone. Together. Fuck.
I take my foot off the gas and coast onto the shoulder. Garrett shifts, and his chin droops down onto his chest and that red hoodie. He can steal all the candy bars he wants, I think, and flirt with goddamn everything . . .but he’s gonna be alone. It’s the stupidest thing.
In case he wakes up and wonders why I stopped, I leave the keys and I leave the radio and the rumble of the engine. Gotta take a leak. In case he asks. I stand off to the side and piss toward the telephone pole, even though it’s fifty feet away, easy.
He’s probably seen this coming way before me, but I don’t let it be this point of envy or whatever. I take a deep breath and I know, I know there’s no reason to want this for me instead of him. If he’d bet on the Sox and won, maybe. But this? Overhead, a jet that’s probably going faster than it looks leaves a slow, white trail against the sky.
I shake off and zip up, kicking chalky dirt over the dark spot I’ve made. I can hate him and love him for being alone. What I can’t do is wrap my head around how long he’s been doing the same.
When I turn around Garrett’s awake, smoking out of the open window and watching me. Which makes me paranoid like you get when you can’t be sure you weren’t talking to yourself out loud. I wasn’t, though.
He says, “Good idea,” and swings his door open.
With the cigarette hanging, poking out of that beard, and with the crinkled squint of his eyes he’s just too much like Dad. I’d never watched Dad piss and this is sort of that, the way he sidles down the shoulder and opens his fly, it’s close but . . .the thing is that Garrett will never be that big.
I’ll always be bigger, from nineteen ‘til whenever we’re alone, and he doesn’t fucking care about that.
I say, “Don’t shoplift any more, okay?”
He takes his hand off his dick to flick his cigarette away. My jaw clicks where I’m clenching it. If there was anything but dust out here he’d probably start a fire.
“What’ll you do if I don’t?”