Karl has a real fever---the sort that sits hot in a head, the kind a man gets from not letting his nose faint in a pillow long enough. Karl should be in the city, in bed. Karl should be finishing the annual reports for that skinny-lipped Robert Falls, but he is back again, on the South End, to see his brothers. The Brothers are eating chicken and chips in a green-roofed joint off of 6th and they’re making jokes about Sarah, the white girl he’s loving now. Karl isn’t talking about Sarah; he’s telling them he’s sick. He’s telling them his face feels green. His brothers are saying something about his fever being jungle-like. Karl isn’t hearing them; he can barely see their mouths flapping and spitting stupid. Karl’s neck is bobble-heading and he feels like the toy, empty and smooth in the face. They say something like, “College Boy, don’t he complain? Girls he gets be fine as fuck. Shit, man. He got the kinds of girls that’ll save you quick.” Karl’s brothers are ordering something fried and fatty and their lips are slug-fat and slick with grease. Karl thinks, “I don’t have to keep coming back home. Why do I keep coming back?” His fingers are shaking like they’re playing invisible piano keys, but his brothers can’t see his hands. The spaces under Karl’s eyes are dark-bruised and raw, and his brothers don’t care. They are quoting Kanye West songs—the one about once you get on, then you get a white girl--- and asking him if he thinks he got on, if he thinks he’s better than them. Yeah. Uh. Huh. Ho, yeah. They are talking about his girl as if she is a radio-line or a long dream, or an exit sign, not a person. Karl’s forehead burns the more they speak.
Karl’s love for Sarah was a coincidence. That love straddled him and choked him, coated his work-worn spirit with a cooling balm. Sarah had just transferred to the firm and she’d seen him, at 9 p.m.., at his desk with his open hand pressed against his forehead. Sarah walked over and squeezed his shoulder. She said, “You’re tired. I’ll get coffee. My potatoes are in the break room,” and he didn’t look at her, but thought: “She is sweet.” Then he did look up and realized she was beautiful, but not because of her flushed-pink skin or because her hair was straight and yellow. He liked the little dimple that studded her left cheek. That she knew how to smile, showing of all of her teeth, even though some of those teeth were too-small or too dark or too-big. She was the only one in the office who could tell he was tired, when he’d worked so hard to look cool-faced.
Karl thinks about his brothers saying the things they say now, and his mother slumped on the sofa with high slopes of stuffing, her blonde wig falling forward. He remembers Mama asking the television screen why Daddy hated her face. He thinks about her always-dry hands and wrenched-down frown.
Karl thinks about the first girl he met in college. Blueberry black. Little wrists, pushed out pink mouth. She got him. They didn’t work, because they didn’t. She wasn’t a color to him either. Karl thinks about the other girls, the actress from Argentina, the Idaho-born white girl with the nose ring and the coal-colored lipstick, the half-Nigerian writer who was studying in India now. Their faces blur in his head, get sewn or smeared together, like a tight stitch of lady-feelings, like a human rainbow. Any one of them could save him, if the conditions were right. A few of them almost put him in the ground.
He thinks about the next day. He will be in the office. Sarah will kiss him on his head when nobody is looking. She will tell Karl he is good and strong, and Robert Falls will tell him he’s always missing some mark.
Karl’s brothers are talking and keep talking. They say that Karl is getting a big head. That his head is growing so big, like a balloon, someday he’ll just float away. Karl closes his eyes. Nobody cares that I’m sick, he thinks. They only want to know what success tastes like. It tastes like fever.
Abbot let the rest of his brothers walk out before him. It was February, a day with too much weather. Little hail threw fists at sleek-slick car windows. Nasty cold sat hard on all of their shoulders. The air was so mean it made them shuffle fast to Abbot’s SUV. Karl was walking quicker than the others. The brothers were yelling jokes at his back while he leaned sideways. Karl didn’t think the brothers were joking, so the brothers had more fun poking at him. They ran up and punched Karl in the shoulder. They guffawed in his ear and called him a white boy. Karl growled and started run-walking. Abbot saw Karl coughing as he moved, saw his younger brother tearing off his hat, despite the winter chill. He knew Karl wasn’t well off. Abbot knew Karl was sick and looked bad. Karl had too many bones in his face now; he was sucked of water and blood. Fuck him, that stuck up piece of shit.
Abbot had known that boy forever, knew him better than the other brothers. They were both four years apart, whereas the other brothers were almost a decade older than Karl. Back when Karl integrated Bissle Elementary in ’56, Mama had asked Abbot to stop by the joint when it let out and make sure the white boys didn’t kick Karl’s dark ass. Abbot would leave Vasio High early, wait outside of Bissle until the bell rung, every week and most afternoons. He’d see Karl leaving the school, see him get promptly chased into swaths of flower bushes and short trees. Abbot would see a half circle of pink faces get around his brother in the playground, and Abbot would pick the white boys off, one by one. He’d throw Karl’s little body on his back and get to running before the teachers saw them. Abbot was the muscle, but Karl was always the big-headed brain. Karl was smart and the whole family knew it. Mama was always asking Abbot to take Karl to after-school programs to make sure he stayed smart and did something with that huge head. Abbot would take Karl to the nun’s classes at St. Mary of the Angels; Abbot bought Karl a telescope for his birthday. When Karl got older, Abbot went to Karl’s football games and science competitions and let him borrow his car so he could pick up the girls he liked. Abbot went to the War and got demons clawing around in his head, and Karl went to Princeton, and now worked at Apple, and hired a tiny black lady who looked like Mama who cleaned his floors. Karl seemed high-up, but Abbot knew him. And here Karl was, pouting. Sick. Fuck him.
What was Karl sick from? Working? The whole family worked. The family had been working their asses off since Karl was a little boy. He was younger than all of the brothers; they took turns taking care of him. They didn’t have time for high school studies, they were too busy busting their asses in factories, or in groceries, or in corner markets; they were trying to put all of their money in the pot. And here they all were. Money-less, with no help from Karl. And there he was.
Let Karl get bothered by the brothers’ white girl talk. He cared too much about what they thought, but didn’t give a shit about them or any of the family. That Mama worked her whole life to give him money, keep him dressed in handsome clothes. Everybody else was working real jobs when he was little. Everybody else needed money and didn’t have time to sit at home reading and dreaming. Karl had that luxury. To Karl, they were all just his hood brothers who could never get out of the South End. But they were all sick and dying on the inside too. Abbot saw Karl cough; Karl kept coughing. It was cold for everyone, not just him.
Abbot still loved Karl. It was a tired-feeling love. Sometimes, Abbot wanted to rush up to Karl and protect him from all kinds of mean winds, to sock all of the things that made his little brother’s face skinny and pale. He wanted to resume his role as Karl’s protector, the person Karl needed to get on. Other times, Abbot wanted Karl to start dying. To get weaker and weaker. Until Abbot had to pick him up, carry him home. Put him on Mama’s couch, in the brothers’ house, and all Karl could do was watch his family, moving around him, moving, moving, while he lay there, no longer superior. While he lay there, gloriously weak.
About the Author: Jennifer Maritza McCauley is a Ph.D. candidate in creative writing at the University of Missouri. She is also an intern at The Missouri Review, a reviews editor at Fjords Review and an associate editor of Origins Literary Journal. Her most recent work appears in Puerto del Sol, New Delta Review, Literary Orphans and Rain Taxi, among other outlets.