Problems on a Minor Scale
My brother’s thirteen-year-old stepson is buying drugs. I discover this as I’m picking him up from his piano lessons. He seems to think the skunk-like smell and completing the transaction in my line of vision are two minor details I’d be oblivious to. I tell him his father wouldn’t approve of his delinquent behavior as he gets in the car.
“Fuck off,” he says and turns his head towards the window, clearly trying to smother any prospect of conversation between us. It’s hard to picture him as the grinning ring bearer I once knew at my brother’s wedding over a year ago.
“You know, you’re brutal for a kid,” I say, cracking open a window. “And why are you smoking weed? Are you even old enough to sit in the passenger seat?”
To this he says, “Drive.”
He says, “What are you waiting for?”
He says, “Shit. This isn’t even the good stuff.”
When we get back my brother is slouched in the armchair watching Family Guy, one hand gripping a beer while the other is stuffed in his pocket. His stepson doesn’t say hi as he races up the stairs—about to test drive his new purchase, no doubt—and slams a door behind him. I tell my brother I think Marshall might be depressed, although I don’t explain why. Living with my brother is like living in a house of cards: one tap could send the whole thing toppling over, and I refuse to be the one to do it.
“He just wants attention,” my brother says, his eyes on the screen, and it seems like the commercial that’s playing is just as important as the show.
“Maybe you should stop watching cartoons and actually talk to him once in a while.”
He groans, flops his head to one side. “No offense, sis, but maybe you should move out of my house and get a job before you start judging me. You’re not exactly the model thirty-year-old, you know.”
Taking the remote that’s wedged in his armpit, I turn up the volume until it’s impossible to decipher Peter’s cackle from the static.
A few days later my brother asks me to drive the three of us to Marshall’s piano recital. I say I’ll drive, as long as he puts down the whiskey. He takes another swig, saying it’s been exactly three months since his wife died, so he can do whatever the hell he wants.
There’s silence in the car ride to the middle school and somehow this silence follows us even after we’re in the crowded auditorium with voices and strings of harmonies spinning through the air. My brother and I sit in the back and cheer and whoop when Marshall comes on stage, the little devil banging out Philip Glass’s “Metamorphosis II” as if he composed the piece himself.
For a second I forget that his mother is gone and that he’s growing up way too fast—in that moment there’s just me and him and the sweet sound of the keys asking and answering each other. I promise myself I’ll be a better aunt.
There’s a crash beside me and I realize my brother has fallen out of his chair. His face looks as cold as the metal flask that’s lodged in his fist. People scream and yell for an ambulance, but Marshall keeps on playing, as if he hasn’t noticed the chaos diffusing across the floor below.
Over the next couple of weeks my brother tries to get himself together: he’s set aside the whiskey and thrown out the beer, he prepares dinner the second he gets home from work—he even asks Marshall how school is going on a daily basis. Soon, I start to think he’s made a full recovery. Marshall, however, has been skeptical. His suspicions prove true when we come home one day to find my brother smoking a joint at the spinet piano.
“Where did you get that?” Marshall asks, his voice sharp.
“Wouldn’t you like to know.” My brother takes another slow drag before coughing violently, the joint crumbling in his grasp. He grinds it into the hardwood with his shoe. “You could sue your dealer for this shit.”
Marshall stays silent, and it feels like my brother has become very flammable underneath his stare.
He remains unmoved. “I’m hurting too, kid.” He swivels in his seat to face the piano, his fingers skimming over the keys. “‘Fantasy in F Minor’ with me? Like old times?” He starts anyway with the bass notes, waiting for his stepson to jump in on the right.
Marshall watches him with heavy eyes and for a moment I think he’s going to join. But then he brushes silently past me, the wooden stairs creaking as he heads to his room. My brother continues to play his half without pause. The somber melody reverberates throughout the house, sounding both incomplete, and from a great distance away.
About the Author: Christina is a senior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and has work featured/forthcoming in Kentucky Review, Atticus Review, Sweet Tree Review, and elsewhere. She writes and spams here.