The Other Son
Last Tuesday, after hearing the news that my brother broke into my parents’ house, hocked a half dozen pieces of my mother’s jewelry, stole my father’s car, and had not been heard from in over a week, I asked the obvious question.
“What did the police say?” I asked my father over the phone.
My father, who was chewing something, finished his bite and then informed me that they had not contacted the police. In response to the silence that followed, he continued and said that, in fact, they had no intention of doing so.
Naturally, I hung up the phone and punched a hole through the drywall in my living room, a hole through which I stared for at least an hour, not so much disgusted with my brother—whose selfishness stretches back as far as I can remember—but more so with my parents, whose concept of grace has always been a convenient compliment to his sense of entitlement.
My reasons for resenting Tyler are simple, and I’ve never felt the need to make them sound more honorable or complicated than they actually are. I think he is a conceited little shit who has never once, as far as I can recall, earned anything for himself. We both went to good schools. We both had a wealth of stability and encouragement at home. We both were taught the difference between right and wrong. As far as excuses for why my brother turned out so poorly, I can’t think of a single one.
When I left town and went off to college—two things, for the record, that Tyler never did--people asked if I had any siblings. If I couldn’t change the subject, I’d tell them about Tyler. They would smile knowingly and use words like “black sheep.” They would say things like, “Reminds me of my younger sister” or “There’s one in every family.”
True or not, I resented such platitudes. I hated their tone more than anything. There was something infuriating about their lenience that made me want to break someone’s teeth. As if by acknowledging that something happens in a bunch of different families, the atrocity is lessened? No. I don’t buy that.
Even if there are millions of young people out there just as messed up as my brother, guilt is guilt and I refuse to call it by any other name. Tyler is a bum-- a selfish, lazy bum. And maybe it needs to be that simple. Maybe the frequency of selfishness should have nothing to do with our tolerance. Maybe we—the ones who follow all the rules, the ones who, far from perfect, at least attempt to do things right—need to stop being so damn accepting of people like Tyler who are entirely capable, but willfully indifferent.
“If you keep coddling him, he’ll never take responsibility for anything,” I told my parents, once, after Tyler had wrecked his second car in as many months and they had helped him purchase a third. Funny how each one was nicer than the last.
By then, I had graduated from Duke and was working at Flour Daniel. I owned a house, six acres, and a thirty-five foot fishing boat that I took out on the weekends. Tyler, when he wasn’t getting buzzed on light beer and busting up cars, was staying at home and doing whatever it was he does while the rest of us work. I know he dropped in on my parents whenever he needed a warm meal or a clean load of laundry.
“Coddling?” my father said. “That’s an interesting term. Define it for me.”
My father had always been like that. More questions than answers. More silence than sound.
“I don’t know,” I lied, pretending to think about it. “How about preventing
My father scrunched his forehead in a way that made it difficult to know if he was actually reflecting on something, or, if like me, he just felt the need to pretend. I wagered it was the second, mainly because I had suspected for a while that somewhere beneath all his patience was another feeling about my brother. There had to be. What it was, I couldn’t say. Disappointment? Bitterness? Anger? I don’t know. I do know, however, that even a father’s love has its lines and Tyler, by then, had crossed them all.
After a moment, he said, “And did we coddle you?”
“Coddle me?” I said, trying to quell a rage that was spreading like wildfire through my veins.
I had never cursed at my father, never so much as raised my voice to him. But that—that question or accusation or whatever the hell it was—irked me beyond measure. He had never said anything like that before. I sat there saying nothing and the more I turned his words over in my mind, the more something inside of me begged to be released. It seemed there was an unspoken debt of truth that needed to be settled between us. My father owed me better than comments like that. After everything I had done, all the years I had spent respecting his expectations and doing the right thing, to be spoken of in the same breath as Tyler was unacceptable. It was, in the purest sense of the word, unfair.
“What I have,” I said calmly. “I earned.”
“And Tyler?” my father replied.
“You hand him everything. Always have. He takes what you give him, makes a mess of it, and blames the world. Then, you step in and hand him something new. It’s a never-ending cycle. How can you not see that?”
“What would you have us do?” my father asked, after several seconds of silence.
“Cut him off,” I said. “Make him work for things the way I did.”
“And that’s fair?”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s fair.”
“And if he falls?”
“Then he falls,” I said. “But at least he’ll get what he deserves.”
“What is it you think your brother deserves?”
I didn’t answer that question. Some things you just don’t say. Not even if it’s what you feel in the deepest parts of your heart. Not even if it’s true. Instead, I mumbled something vague about how you have to hit rock bottom before you dust yourself off and become a man.
My father said nothing.
From what I understand, Tyler tried heroin for the first time in high-school. I’m not sure if it worked the way they say it does—marijuana being a “gateway” to the heavier stuff—or if he just suddenly felt inclined to try heroin. All I know is that about the same time I was finishing my first semester at Duke, he was apparently using pretty regularly. He was a “junkie” or whatever it is they call themselves.
I saw him when I came home for Christmas break. He had shucked about 30 pounds and his eyes had a glossy, dead look to them. It wasn’t until that spring that I found out about his new habit, so, at the time, I just chalked it up to neglect. Given his natural aptitude for ignoring things, it seemed a logical conclusion.
“You lost weight,” I told him and slapped him on the back to gauge just how skinny he was. My palm landed on his left shoulder-blade which felt outstretched and sharp like the corner of a coffee table.
“Looks like you found it,” he said and used two fingers to thump my stomach the way you pack down a can of dip. “How’s Dukey?”
We moved down the hall towards the kitchen. He walked behind me, dragging his feet like he had done since childhood. I sat down at the kitchen table, the same table that, for years, we had, gathered around as a family to eat and share stories from the day. Tyler didn’t sit. Instead, he remained standing, bouncing on his heels and constantly balling and unballing his fists. He was jittery and not in a good way. He looked like a boxer shaking out the nerves before a fight he was supposed to throw. He looked like the guys outside of a gas station who approach you late at night to ask for change. He looked sorry.
“Duke is great,” I said. “How’s high-school?”
“High-school is high-school,” he replied, chewing on a fingernail that had already been worked down to a nub. He bit off a considerable chunk and spit it on my parents’ kitchen floor. “You go to any games?”
“I make most of the home ones,” I said and nodded towards the chewed up cuticle. “Pick that up.”
“Saw you got your ass handed to you by Clemson,” he said and shuffled over to the refrigerator. “You go to that one?”
“Nope,” I said. “I took Sarah to Sugar Mountain that weekend. Had a lovely weekend actually.”
The cuticle’s presence on the otherwise immaculate hardwood floor infuriated me. Rather than start a whole thing, though, I grabbed a napkin, scooped it up, and tossed it in a nearby trashcan. Tyler emerged from the refrigerator with two beers just as I sat back down.
“Well, it was bad. Something like twelve or fourteen points,” he said, opening a beer for himself and then offering me one as well. “Y’all have no defense.”
“I’m good,” I said, waving off the beer. “Going to try to run later tonight.”
“Okay,” he said and, taking both beers, headed for the pantry.
I asked him some more questions about school while he fumbled around in there, but I couldn’t make out much through the punctuated crackle of cellophane bags. When he came out of the pantry, he had a handful of potato chips and the pockets of his Carhartt were bulging with what looked like Little Debbie cakes.
“Grab a seat,” I said. “Tell me about baseball.”
“Actually,” he mumbled through a mouthful of chips. “I have to run. I’m meeting someone.”
As he made for the door, I noticed greasy yellow flakes in his beard and all down the front of his shirt. He had always been a messy eater, a slob who thought nothing of making other people pick up behind him.
“Wipe your face,” I said to his back.
I listened for his response, but all I heard was the screen door banging once and then again like a shotgun into the night.
“Damn slob,” I said to the empty room and bent over to begin picking up his crumbs.
As bad as he looked back then, I would not have guessed he was capable of stealing from my parents. I assumed—why, I cannot say—that everyone has limits, lines they refuse, out of basic decency, to cross. But what did I know?
“We’re still praying for your brother,” Chuck Buchanan said to me on Sunday morning as I was trying to sneak in one last cup of coffee before the worship band started playing. Chuck took my shoulder in his brick-layer’s grip and gave it a squeeze then a slap then another squeeze.
“Thanks Chuck,” I said, gripping my tiny white Styrofoam cup and watching the powdered creamer dissolve. I had been in church long enough to know how a guy like Chuck, who was, at best, an acquaintance, came across information about my brother. Someone in some Bible study had asked for prayer requests. Someone else, perhaps Chuck, had volunteered the juicy tidbit about my brother’s heist. Heads probably shook. Something nice was probably said about my father. Everyone present had something to talk about on the car ride home. Behold, my brother’s one contribution to the community—he was superb fodder for church gossip.
I took my coffee into the sanctuary and found my father in his usual seat, front row center, blue lights spilling down on his hands outstretched in the air, the band singing something about grace being an ocean. They sang a few more songs and then the pastor came out. He spoke about tithing and how God actually wanted more than ten percent of your income. At the
end of the sermon, I cringed when my father got out his checkbook. The band had come back out on stage and was singing a song about the cross. I excused myself.
After church, we met for lunch at my father’s favorite diner, a place I never particularly liked. It had been years since I had been there. He used to take Tyler and I there after Little League games and it always smelled of bacon and cigarettes. I remember how the menus were always sticky and the waitresses depressed me with their paunchy midsections and their twangy accents. It took me all of seven seconds to realize that not much had changed. My father still knew everybody and the food was still hopelessly soaked in grease.
“Any word on Tyler?” I asked, bringing a bite of hash-browns to my mouth before noticing a suicide blonde strand of hair fighting its way free from the cohesion of potatoes and cheese.
“He’s in Pickens,” my dad said and signaled the waitress for more coffee.
“Pickens?” I echoed. “What’s he doing there?”
“Don’t know,” he replied. “Doug Staples called me earlier this morning. He’s got some friends in the sheriff’s department over there.”
“Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go get him.”
“It’s not that simple, son.”
“I’m pretty sure it is. At the very least, we’re getting your car back.”
“The car’s gone.”
“Stripped and sold for parts.”
The waitress returned and my father extended his mug for a refill. The coffee was black and wreathed in steam.
“Thank you, Tracy,” he said, like it was any other Sunday, like his son was not a car-stealing heroin addict living two counties over. You could say my father had a talent for carrying on like everything was okay when everything was not. I suppose, like anything else, practice makes perfect.
“So what’s your plan then?” I asked, trying, best I could, to sound as casual as him.
“Yeah, what are you going to do?”
“I’m not sure I understand,” he said.
“Enough, Dad. I get it, okay? Tyler’s a loser and you still love him. That’s very Christian of you.
But isn’t there a point where enough is enough?”
“I see,” he said and sipped his coffee. “You think we’ve reached that point?”
“I think we passed that point about five years ago,” I said. “But, what the hell, there’s no time like the present to put your foot down.”
“And what does that entail? Putting my foot down?”
His phone was on the counter beside the salt shaker, so I picked it up.
“Take this,” I said, barely resisting the urge to wave it in front of his face. “The number is 9-1-1. Tell them you’d like to report a robbery and a breaking and entering. Tell them you intend to press charges.”
“Your brother is involved with some people,” he said and took the phone from my hand.
“Involved?” I said. “What does that mean? Does he owe money to the Mafia or something?”
“The Mafia?” my father said, laughing in way I didn’t especially care for. “I think you overestimate your brother.”
“Is this some kind of a joke to you? He broke into the house. He stole mom’s jewelry. Am I supposed to find that funny?”
“No,” he said. “Not at all.”
“Then pick up that phone and call the police.”
“You know I’m not going to do that,” he said and reached across the table for my hand.
“How did I forget?” I said, reaching for my wallet.
I was too slow though. By the time I had worked a twenty loose, he already had the bill in hand and was walking towards the register. I knew better than to fight that battle. My father had a thing about providing for his blood.
In the parking lot, I walked him over to the truck he was borrowing from a friend or whoever. He hugged me and said to keep Tyler in my prayers. He started the engine and then rolled down the window to tell me that prayer was the only thing that would bring Tyler back. I watched him drive away, wondering—if, for whatever reason, my brother did come
back-- what exactly he thought would happen. After everything my brother had done, what on earth was my father hoping for?
But that, I guess you could say, is my problem with hope.
I prayed. Nothing happened. After a while, I stopped.
When my dad asked me about it, I didn’t have to lie.
Things picked up at work. I still saw my father on Sundays and he still invited me to his diner. I told him I had some things to do, which was not entirely untrue. I had a girlfriend who loved to hike. I had friends with lake houses who threw parties on the weekends. I had projects around the house. It’s not like I sat around worrying over Tyler. It’s not like I didn’t have a life of my own.
It was a Tuesday when he called. I remember it was one of those days that began all sunny and warm and then, seemingly out of nowhere, turned overcast and chilly my office, waiting for an email and studying the sky out the window. The phone rang, I picked it up. It was my father.
“Colton, as soon as you can, I need you to stop by the hospital,” he said. “It’s your brother.”
“What happened?” I said, the image of my brother in a hospital bed already forming in my mind, just waiting for blood and bruises to appear on the appropriate body parts.
“It’s bad,” he said. “I’ll tell you when you get here. Just hurry.”
I left a message with my secretary, something vague about a family emergency. When I arrived at the hospital, my mother was standing outside the emergency room smoking. It had been years since I had seen her smoke. She had quit when we were young. When she looked up and saw me crossing the parking lot, she quickly stabbed it out in a nearby ashtray and practically broke into a sprint towards me. She was squeezing me so hard her arms were shaking and, through the sobs, she kept repeating, “Animals.” When she finally released and composed herself, I understood the fuller context.
“Those people are animals,” she said, fumbling with a mostly full pack of Marlboros. “How can they do something like that to another human being? How can they just do something like that?”
“Can I see Tyler?” I said and took her arm to steer her out of the parking lot and towards the hospital.
“Of course, sweetie,” she said and followed me through the automatic doors.
It occurred to me then that she, too, was blind to the reality that Tyler was one of “those people,” that it had been years since he was one of us.
Inside it smelled like bleach and metal and whatever you call that odor that the sick and dying give off. I’ve never liked hospitals. Something about that smell and the washed-out fluorescent lighting and the near tangible sense of despair that seems to rush forward and meet you in every hallway. Something about the unchecked desperation there.
My father was in the waiting room. He had muted the TV that was mounted on the wall and was whispering prayers into his folded hands. He didn’t notice us come in and didn’t stop praying until I laid a hand on his shoulder.
“Where’s Tyler?” I said.
“They’re working on him right now,” my father said and ran the back of his hand across his red-rimmed eyes. “He’s lost a lot of blood.”
“What happened?” I said.
My father looked over my shoulder as if he was expecting someone to burst into the room. Then he leaned in and whispered, “We don’t know. Someone found him on the side of 61. The doctors said it looks like he was beaten and thrown out of a moving vehicle.”
“Animals,” my mother sobbed into his shoulder.
“We won’t know for sure until he wakes up,” my father said and guided my mother to one of the straight-back metal chairs that lined all four walls of the room.
I sat down with the both of them and we passed the next hour in silence—my father praying, my mother crying, and me watching a soundless episode of American Gladiators.
When the doctor came in, it was after midnight. We were the only ones left in the waiting room and American Gladiators had been over for a while. Some guy was displaying a set of 12 steak knives by cutting chopping carrots and onions.
We rose together, bracing for whatever came next.
The doctor, an Indian man in his thirties with gentle brown eyes and a slightly feminine voice, told us that Tyler was in a coma. At the mention of this, my mother collapsed into my father’s arms. I helped him support her as the doctor insisted that, given his injuries, a coma was completely normal. He said something about the body giving the brain time to rest and how Tyler should wake up in the next 48 hours. He said a lot of other things about Tyler’s condition, but we had heard the only thing that mattered. My brother was not dead. He was, even with all his injuries, still with us.
He was a tough little animal, I’ll give him that.
The Indian man was wrong. Tyler did not wake up until almost two weeks later. The three of us had been taking shifts in his room. The nurses had taken liberties with visiting hours which, for most people, ended at nine and even provided us with a cot to sleep on. For the two weeks that he was in a coma, Tyler was never alone. Of course it was during my watch that he woke up.
“Water,” he said, pointing to his mouth.
I had been asleep. Incidentally, I was having a dream about him. We were just kids in the dream and we were standing in this field without any houses or streets around. Even though it was light out, a huge harvest moon was hanging low in the sky and we were throwing rocks at it.
Tyler, who was never much good at sports, had given up throwing and was sitting Indian-style in the grass, playing with his shoes or something. I kept throwing though, harder and higher. I was just about to hit the moon when Tyler called out.
“Here,” I said, raising a glass of water and working the straw through the wires that held his jaw shut. He drank until the glass was empty and then started coughing. He tried to sit up in bed but winced and slunk back down.
“How do you feel?” I said, pulling the seat up next to the bed.
“Sore,” he said and ran his fingers over his left ribcage.
“Well you have four broken ribs, a shattered jaw, and a half dozen contusions,” I said, hitting the button to call the nurses.
“Where’s mom and dad?” he said.
“At home,” I replied. “Relax though. I’ll call them in minute.”
He closed his eyes and looked like he was struggling to breathe.
“You okay?” I asked.
“I think,” he said.
“The nurses will be here in a minute,” I said.
For what seemed like forever, we just sat there in silence. All the machines continued humming and their little screens flashed lines and dots and numbers, giving no indication that a man had just passed into consciousness. The sound of muffled voices and shoes squeaking came in from the hallway. I looked at my brother lying in that bed and waited for him to speak. I needed to hear him say that he was grateful. I needed to hear him say that he was sorry. I stared at him and waited, but he just closed his eyes and sat so still that I thought he had fallen asleep.
“You’re lucky to be alive,” I said. “Do you know that?”
He nodded his head.
“Do you remember what happened?” I asked.
He shook his head.
I didn’t believe him.
“They say someone beat you up and then pushed you out of a car,” I said. “You have any friends who would do something like that?”
“No,” he whispered.
“Let me go find a phone,” I said. “I need to call mom and dad.”
“Dad,” I heard him whisper as I left the room. I think that he was crying, but I didn’t turn around to see. Those machines were beeping, but I swear he said something like, “I need Dad.”
I used the phone at the nurses’ station. My father picked up on the first ring and hung up right after I said, “He’s awake.”
The nurses were in with Tyler, so I decided to step outside and get some air. It was muggy outside and clouds had covered up all the stars except for a few. A breeze picked up and carried an empty grocery bag across the parking lot. It made a scratching sound as it moved across the pavement and it moved so slow and steady that I found it impossible not to watch. I stood there and watched the wind push got caught on the exhaust pipe of an old Buick. Then I sat down on a bench and tried to collect my thoughts.
I thought again about throwing rocks at the moon and, from there, drifted to other recollections of our childhood. I thought about the room we once shared, its bunk beds and wood panel siding. I thought about Christmas mornings and the gifts we bought, or sometimes made, each other. I thought about baseball, all those hours in the backyard practicing skills we thought we’d use forever. I tried, and in some way succeeded, to remember the times before my brother became who he became.
I was still on the bench when I saw my father’s truck tearing down the highway. I knew from the speed that it was him. He had to be doing seventy and he hardly even slowed when he turned into the hospital.
When he parked it and killed the engine, I stood up to meet him. I could not have been more than fifty feet to the left of the entrance. He jumped out of the truck and broke into a sprint. He was running faster than I had ever seen him run before, fast enough to not hear me when I called him, fast enough to miss me altogether. I called to him again, but he was already gone. The doors had closed behind him and the scratch of the plastic bag dragging across the pavement was the only sound for miles.
About the Author:
Dan Leach’s short fiction has been published in various literary journals and magazines, including The Greensboro Review, Appalachian Heritage, and The New Madrid Review. A native of South Carolina, he graduated from Clemson University in 2008, and taught high-school in Charleston until 2014 when he relocated to Nebraska. Floods and Fires, his debut short-story collection, will be published by University of North Georgia Press in 2016. He is currently at work on his first novel.