Early June and I’m almost seven years old, wringing my hands in the shaded gravel driveway, checking the highway in front of our green two-story rental for my mother’s station wagon, ready to yell if she shows. My older brother, Jim, stands in his jeans and an Ocean Pacific T-shirt, BB gun drawn to his shoulder, squinting down the barrel. He’s had the gun two years, since his eighth birthday, and only uses it to shoot cans off the back porch. His feathered brown bangs hang over his eyes as he tries to steady the rifle. At the bottom of the driveway, our five-year-old brother, Justin, stands with his back pressed against the garage door. A poof of blonde hair and a squint in his left eye, the same squint as almost every other boy in Texas. A smile on his face and a red apple on his head, the same blue T-shirt and mended Huskies he wears every day. Jim drops the rifle, and I relax, relieved we’re not going through with this. But he presses the stock to his thigh and starts pumping more air into the chamber, to give the shot maximum power, until his face is red from straining and he can’t pump the gun any fuller. He lifts the rifle back to his shoulder. I glance at the highway and hear the airy pop.
We expect an explosion of red and yellow. Something straight out of the movies. But the apple rolls intact off Justin’s head as he bolts for the house. Jim drops the rifle and steps in Justin’s path to block him from running past. By the time I catch up, he is gripping Justin’s shoulders, saying, “Let me see.” But Justin’s hand is flat over his mouth and he shakes his head crying. Jim tries to keep him still, but Justin acts like he’s on fire, screaming behind his palm. His crazy fidgeting is almost funny until blood trickles down his chin. Jim finally pries the clenched hand loose and pins Justin’s arms to his sides. Now we can see the BB lodged in the center of Justin’s upper lip, and the lip already starting to swell, pushing the BB down even further, so only the smallest brass shows. I feel a slight wave of validation, because I had said this was a bad idea. Even now I want to say that I was right, but it will only make Jim punch me.
Behind us, on cue, the driveway’s gravel crunches and the station wagon brakes to a stop. It’s Saturday and our mother has been doing overtime—accounting for Jet Research. I have no idea what she actually does, just that she works sixty hours a week at a desk and flips through stacks of paper, punching a large calculator, making sure the numbers on the pages add up. I do not know what the numbers are for. My father is also at work, at a bar called the Men’s Club, where he tends open to close.
The station wagon windshield is dusty, and as she brakes more dust clouds up. Her head has already fallen sideways, as if she half-expected exactly this. She gets out, slams the creaky door, and walks directly over, pushes Jim aside and pinches Justin’s chin, twisting his face left and right. Jim tries to explain that we were just messing around, but she isn’t listening, only looking at Justin’s mouth. Jim stops when she pulls Justin, stumbling, up the cracked front walkway toward the house.
Jim and I follow. Through the screen door, past the console TV, to the edge of the dining room. We stay put, knowing not to go further. Mom stops at the Formica table, slings out a chair, and pushes Justin down in the plastic seat. She walks in the kitchen and pulls out the junk drawer where we keep our tools: a wood-handled hammer, random nails, and screwdrivers. Justin glances over his shoulder to see what she’s doing and looks back at us, blood covering his mouth and the front of his shirt, his brown eyes oily and scared. I feel sorry for him, because this is his plight, being youngest. You get all the attention, but you also are the guinea pig. Your older brother learns about William Tell, and you have to be the one to suffer, reassured it will be awesome, because your older brother is awesome.
She comes back holding a flathead screwdriver, stands in front of Justin, and starts prying the BB loose. There isn’t money for doctors, and she just wants this done. Justin’s arms go stiff and he squirms, but she says “Stop it,” and he does.
Red spreads on Jim’s cheeks, as if he’s about to cry. He has been given one job this summer, our main rule: Take care of your brothers. Our mother’s instructions.
Among the million things not to do: shoot us in the face.
The BB hits the linoleum and Justin’s arms go slack. Our mom pulls him up and pushes him at Jim. “Go clean him up,” she says, “and use disinfectant.” The disinfectant is rubbing alcohol. As she heads back in the kitchen, her shoulders relax, like now her weekend can finally begin. I hear her Old Milwaukee pop, and we start toward the bathroom, me two steps behind my brothers. For a minute, I’d felt like part of them. But all along, it was Jim and Justin. The ones who shrug and say “sure” to anything, who wake up and go to sleep dirty. And now this game has brought them closer, and I am ever on the outside—the unadventurous one, the one always mumbling warnings that someone will get hurt or we’ll get yelled at by our mom. The annoying one, the wuss. Jim clamps his hand behind Justin’s neck and guides him through the bathroom door. I have to assure myself it’s okay to follow them in.
This is the summer we stay home. Up to this year, after school and during summers, we’d gone to Carousel Daycare, where everyone calls us the Skippers. Jimmy, Jason, and Justin. Carousel had a playground with rusted monkey bars and plastic slides, apples for snacks, and plastic cots for taking naps. Jim was always well behaved, with soft brown eyes and knowledge of football. Justin spent most of his time rolling plastic cars around in the sandbox, always dirty. I was the one who fell asleep first during naptime, though the truth is I didn’t sleep. I closed my eyes and laid still, listening while the teachers said what a good kid I was, a good example. Some of the kids called me a kiss-ass, but Jim wouldn’t stand for it. Only he could call me names.
But this is the summer our lives start to shift, when my father starts bartending at the Men’s Club because he lost his seafood store. He works six to six, then goes to beer joints nearby. I have been to his job, where men sit at stools around a U-shaped bar that my father tends, dressed in jeans and a cap. The place smells cold and a sign over the bar reads, “Women Not Admitted.” Every few feet along the walls hang centerfolds from dirty magazines, of women naked and splayed. Some lie on red satin; others sit with their knees pulled to their chins, like young girls. All round-breasted with hair between their legs, smiling with eyes that follow you around the room. The one exception is Farrah Fawcett, dressed in a red one-piece, sitting by a jukebox. Her eyes are so bright they don’t follow anyone. When I go to the Men’s Club—on the schooldays that I have dentist appointments and my father can’t leave me alone at home—I shoot pool by myself, drink Cokes and eat Moon Pies, glancing up at the pictures, though mainly at Farrah. Because she is clothed, because she is prettiest, because it seems I can. The others make me nervous, with their following eyes.
This is the summer my father starts to disappear. I learn about time, how one then two nights can turn into a week. I learn about money and how it connects to electricity, air conditioning, the refrigerator, and the lights. I learn why my mother does the overtime and fights with my father when he comes home. Conversations about the heat, the rotting food, no lights. She says “eviction,” but I can’t picture it, living out of the station wagon. This is the summer she follows him out to his van, yelling. I know this arguing shakes the house, and when they take it outside it shakes everything around our house. We don’t have neighbors, only a junk car lot on the right and a convenience store on the left. Some old lady lives in a trailer behind us, and there’s a junkyard past her, but there are all these passing cars on the highway, slowing down and turning their heads, as if passing a TV.
This is the summer my mom says Jim is old enough to watch us, in part because she can’t afford Carousel, but also because we’re older. She is the one who instructs all of us, even Justin and me: Watch over each other.
Every morning we wake around ten, fill our bowls with cold cereal and milk, and sit on the couch in our shorts, watching reruns. The Munsters, Leave it to Beaver, The Addams Family, and Dennis the Menace. All in black and white. To get control of the remote, we have to punch whoever has it in the arm until they relent, which means we watch what Jim wants. I like Patty Duke, but he says it’s a girl’s show, and Justin nods, though he doesn’t know the difference. We’re not allowed to turn on the air conditioner, so we have two box fans on opposite sides of the television, running full blast and blowing warm air. The television blaring.
Each morning before heading out for work my mom leaves three one-dollar bills on the kitchen table, so for lunch we walk along the highway to the air-conditioned convenience store. While Jim grabs a frozen burrito and a bag of chips, Justin and I kneel at the candy racks and cautiously pick penny candies along the bottom shelf. Jolly Ranchers, Laffy Taffy, individual Now and Later’s. Chewy candies that last longer. We carry them to the counter and lay them out in separate piles. The clerk adds up the thirty-one pieces and puts them in two paper sacks, little packages we carry out into the sun.
Back home we sit in the living room with the curtains drawn, keeping the sun out. Candy in our laps, we watch more reruns, now in color. Flipper, The Brady Bunch, Different Strokes, Good Times. We spend all day with these families. Like these kids, we’re bored and smart and always getting yelled at, but we’re sweaty and always searching for the next episode to get into. We don’t notice the difference, that our arms are covered in scabs and picked-at mosquito bites, and our clothes are never bright. We suck down Otter Pops and learn from these shows why not to lie, not to steal. That it’s okay to be different. Watching these shows with my brothers, I can relate to the Beaver and Marilyn Munster. Weirdos. Outsiders in their own families. I am the middle kid who won’t play sports because I don’t like to get hurt or get yelled at by coaches, saying stupid shit to me like “team player.” In these television shows, people laugh when these kids mess up, but most of the time I end the game by thinking “fuck off” and going away to read. Every story ends with forgiveness and applause, in that order, and I watch the shows a little bit differently than my brothers. For them it’s just another way to pass the time.
My mom’s car pulls up and she passes in front of the television, where Star Blazers has just wrapped up, the Argo sailing off into space looking for a new home. We hear the freezer door open and we know supper is frozen pizza. We hear the refrigerator hum, and it’s grilled cheese. A cabinet slams, and it’s spaghetti or Hamburger Helper. After dinner we watch her shows. Dallas, Falcon Crest, Knots Landing. My mom sits at the coffee table on the floor in front of the couch, drinking her Old Milwaukees, surrounded by the stacks of paper that she’s brought home, punching her calculator. We sit behind her, eating generic ice cream, the sugar gritty. With the air conditioner running, my brothers and I sit, knees almost touching. No one looks up at the door for our father to come home. It’s just us, and we are happy.
Late June and the shows have started to repeat. So we sit at the top of the narrow staircase, Justin in the unfolded, hard plastic suitcase we never use. The stairs are carpeted and there are walls on both sides all the way down, so the likelihood of getting hurt is low, according to Jim. He figures you can only fall forward or backward, and if you hit the carpet it’s not as bad as wood, so don’t worry. At the bottom, we’ve stacked couch cushions and pillows. Justin sits with his feet in the front half and his butt pressed against the back. Jim has already gone down once, and I should be second, but I wussed out. He gives Justin the rules: Keep your hands inside or you’ll break them. Keep your legs in the front or you’ll break them. Lean forward or you’ll fall back and split your head. Understand? Justin nods. He grips the hinge connecting both halves, presses his heels to the front, and works his lower spine against the back.
We count from three and push him over.
He quickly picks up speed, bouncing higher as he goes, until he’s tilting to both sides, scraping along the walls. At the twelfth step, he’s airborne and sideways, and I stand, holding my breath. He nails the cushions, skids across, and the suitcase thumps the wall.
Jim yells, “Are you okay?” and Justin turns around smiling. Jim says to bring the suitcase up.
I think to myself, Dammit.
After Justin hauls up the case by its handle, I snatch it from his hands, spread it open, and get inside. I sit and scoot forward, without help or instruction, and lean forward. It starts with quick bumps. But then the bumps last longer, and I go airborne. Everything lifts: my butt, my chest, my hair, my stomach. The cushions and wall rise to me and slam me in the feet. I jump up and haul the suitcase to the top and get in again before they can speak, before I can get scared.
We go alone and we go in pairs. Scraping our elbows along the walls, bruising our butts. We lean forward for speed, and we clear the pillows from the bottom, not thinking about the dents until our mother shows us later, threatening to send us to bed without supper. But she would never let us go to bed hungry, and that night in bed we try to think up what we’ll do tomorrow.
A picture of Jim hangs on the fridge, kneeling on the football field, wearing his white pee-wee Cowboys uniform, helmet at his hips, shoulder pads bulking him up. He is the one who broke his leg playing tag on the bleachers at Cowtown Speedway, a dirt racecar track, falling from the top of the stands into a metal trashcan. He has a C-shaped scar on the right side of his chin from the time he and a friend played catch with a metal pipe. He builds bike ramps in the driveway and rides his BMX with friends. He’s the one my father takes deer hunting. He built the tree house in the backyard and said I could use it if he could cut a line down the center of my chest with a knife. I agreed and kneeled in front of him on the wood planks, with my shirt off and bare chest stretched as he took the wood-handled steak knife and pressed the pointed end to my sternum.
Justin’s hair is a tangled mess no comb can work through, much less shape. He is always smiling and dirty. People ask him, “What the hell did you get into?” But he’s the little one, so no one expects an answer, and he never explains.
I am the one who runs inside. Always inside my head, thinking of what bad can happen. Unable to understand the rules of a game, because my mind drifts, and people yell. I get tackled too hard, my new Sears clothes get torn, my cheeks scraped against the grass. I read Ramona Quimby and Judy Blume. I run inside and help my mom with the Hamburger Helper, frying the ground beef on the stove. I wash the dishes in hot sudsy water. People say, “You just don’t like to get your hands dirty,” and they are all frustratingly correct. People in my family call me the pretty boy, but that doesn’t mean handsome, what Jim gets called.
One afternoon Justin and I play barber while watching Star Trek. He sits on the recliner behind me, and I sit on the floor. He sprays my hair down, combs it, and pretends to use scissors to cut the top. I do this because it feels good, until one day I feel a warm drip on my head. I’m so relaxed, I don’t think anything of it until I pat my head, look at my hand, and see green in the cracks of my fingers. I bolt for the bathroom and jump in the shower. A thick pool of dye collects at my feet, and Justin says the hair dye package was the same color as my hair. I say, “Shit shit shit,” until the emerald water runs clear, scared of looking ugly because pretty is all I’ve got, though I know it’s a joke.
One Friday night in July, while my parents are out dancing at some bar, we watch Fantasy Island. We aren’t typically left alone at night, but nothing hospital-worthy has happened so far. I’m on the carpet with my legs folded. Jim is in the recliner with Justin sitting on the back of it, his legs draped over Jim’s shoulders. Jim must be in a good mood because he has allowed Justin to wear his Battlestar Galactica T-shirt, with the baseball sleeves and iron-on. Every few minutes, Justin thumps his heels down on Jim’s chest. Jim says, “Stop it,” but they’re laughing, and I laugh with them, a second behind. This lasts half an hour, until out of nowhere Jim grabs Justin’s feet, tips him backward, and he disappears. Something cracks and Justin groans. Jim slides the chair out, and Justin, still turned upside down, topples forward beside a broken clay pot, his hair already matted, neck red. Jim guides him to the bathroom, turns on the light, and grabs a thin white towel, one of the old ones. He puts it on Justin’s head and says, “Push down.”
I watch my little brother, knowing I would be screaming and running circles. But he is calm, and I wonder if he’s not crying because he hasn’t seen the blood yet.
Justin says, “Can I look?”
Jim spins him toward the mirror, stands behind him and squeezes his shoulders. Says, “Dude, you’re fine.” Each word a pat on his back.
As the towel becomes red and wet, Jim finds another—thicker and longer—and wraps it around Justin’s head. A large, yellow turban. Jim tucks the bottom corner, so it stays snug. It’s so large, Justin can barely hold his head upright. Jim says, “You look like Scandor Akbar,” the Arab wrestler who fights the Von Erichs on Sunday morning TV.
Justin looks in the mirror, trying to find the resemblance, until he does and says, “Cool.”
I say, “Shouldn’t we call Mom?”
Jim blinks as if something has just struck him. He says, “My shirt,” as if he’s come across something dead that he once loved.
The iron-on of Battlestar’s cast still has its sparkles in the darker parts, but blood covers the shoulders and the back. Justin and I always borrow Jim’s clothes because ours consist of his old solid-colored shirts and thick, patched Huskie jeans. Jim’s have pictures of things he loves, and so by default we love them, too. Ocean Pacific surfers, Billy Idol. This shirt is a loss for all of us, but it is Jim’s favorite. Just when he’s almost mad, he relaxes and takes a grown-up’s breath, runs his mind through a few steps, and accepts this. He nods as if to say, I guess it’s your shirt now.
When my parents walk through the door later that night, laughing and hugging, they stop and separate, surprised to see us up. On the carpet, with Justin between us, we look up. The massive towel is still on his head, and he’s still wearing the bloodied shirt. I expect my mom to take him to the hospital, but she tells us to go to bed.
In the morning, eating cereal at the dining room table, Justin has thirteen stitches and a story about the emergency room, where they took him in the morning. Bright lights, ice cream, root beer. My mother tells us how the doctors and the nurses said he was so brave. Their brave little man. Now he has a word, all his own. Not handsome or pretty.
I sit on the seat of Jim’s tall BMX, clenching the grips and staring down the gravel driveway at the garage, toes barely reaching the spiked pedals. Sweat on my shirt and inside my grip. Jim’s hand flat on my back. We’ve been at this off and on all summer, and today is July 15. My seventh birthday. Today we’ve been at it two hours, and my knees are covered in strawberries, dried down my calves. I want to quit, but Jim won’t let me. His only instructions are to keep pedaling. I ask for more advice, but he says that’s all it is. He asks if I’m ready and I nod, knowing how this will go. He gives me a push and says, “Pedal.” I coast maybe ten feet before the handlebars careen and the bike seems to bend underneath me. I come down on my knee, on a rock. My brother groans, frustrated. I stay there for a minute, palms pressed in the gravel. Jim says, “Get up,” and I climb from under the bike, walk it back up the hill, aching to stop. As the afternoon wears on, I slam to the ground in every way. On my knees, on my hips. I am one bruise and the sun is setting.
Finally, Jim says, “Let’s try something else.” He walks the bike toward the highway, until we’re standing on its shoulder, a few feet from the busy road. Still on the shoulder, he turns the bike so it faces oncoming traffic. He says get on, and I do.
“There’s no downhill this time,” he says, “So you’re going to have to pedal. Are you ready?”
I look ahead, at the blue sky and the red dirt, feeling the wind of passing cars, smelling their fumes. His hand on my lower back, I align the right pedal under my right foot, so I can start off by pushing down on it, as I raise myself to stand up, instead of sitting on the seat. As my right foot circles round and I move forward, my left foot finds the left pedal, and I push down on it, keeping the handlebars steady. Veering for a moment toward the road, but steering back from it, somewhere my left knee comes up and falls down as my right knee comes up and the handlebars stay steady. Jim is running beside me, but as I gain momentum and speed, his hand lifts off my back, then it is gone, and he is gone, and I see how everything about this is connected. Now stand up on the pedals, moving forward along the highway. I can leave. Go forever. This is my brother’s gift for me that no one can take away, though now I will need to teach myself how to turn around.
This is the August we move into a house up the highway, closer to the strip of bars where my dad goes. The move is so fast. We pack the station wagon with our clothes, and a pickup with our couch and television and go, all in one Saturday morning. I’m excited because of the change, but I know when we get there, this is supposed to be a new start. It’s smaller, more cramped. One story, brown. Yellow shag carpet, one working telephone line. Hotter inside. Behind it is an empty field full of tall dead yellow grass, a one-lane road, railroad tracks. Trains scream by until I don’t notice.
My mother collects puzzles and keeps them stored in the closets. Hundreds of boxes. Every so often, Justin and I take them down to build forts for our He-Man figures and GI Joes. But more often, I build the forts and don’t want to play. One afternoon, as I finish stacking the boxes and he walks in holding the dolls and I say, “I don’t want to.” Justin frowns and looks down at the toys, frustrated. He will never ask again.
I’m the one who finds the square in the ceiling in the closet in the bathroom. The one who puts the kitchen chair underneath it, climbs on top of the water heater, and pushes the square up to reveal the dark musty crawlspace. I’m the one who pulls myself up and throws my leg over and walks on the rafter beams. I dream of making this my clubhouse, where my brothers would have to do something to join, though I can’t imagine what. We will hide food up here, and sodas. I tell Jim, and he asks me to show him, so I do. I’m the one who demonstrates climbing up, looking down as he begins to follow, and I’m the one who falls through, reaching up fast enough to grab the side of the entrance to the crawlspace. Arms stretched out, I dangle face-to-face with my brother, smiling. I’m the one who doesn’t break my bones or get caught. I am the good one.
Saturday in late August, just before I start second grade. I’m sitting on top of Jim’s desk with my legs folded, facing him as he sits in his chair, reading a BMX magazine. Without glancing up, he repeatedly swings his overturned fist down on my knee, and each time I say, “Stop it.” All our lives, he’s been the one who could push me into doing anything. When we fight, he wrestles me down and pins me quick, so I can’t move, and thumps my forehead repeatedly. Right now, I don’t want to move off the desk, and he doesn’t intend to quit punching me. On the far end of the desk is a model airplane he’s glued together. He’s the only one with the patience for models, and they’re strung up to the ceiling: Blue Angels, Stealth Fighters, F-14s. Next to the pile is a plastic-handled X-ACTO knife. I’ve run my fingers across the blade when he was away with his friends, and it’s felt dull. But I’ve used the pointed end to carve my initials into my record player. I pick up the knife, and his fist swings down again. I say, “Stop, or you’ll regret it,” and he hits me harder. I warn him two more times, and as his fist rises, I hold the knife out, blade up, tighten my wrist and firm my grip.
His hand slides across it and he jumps to his feet, clenching his fist in one hand. “What the fuck did you just do?”
I look at the knife, now in my palm. “I didn’t think it was that sharp.”
He shakes his head as if he doesn’t understand. The color leaves his face as he staggers to the bathroom, goes to the toilet, and dry heaves. He walks to the sink and turns on the faucet. When the blood between his knuckles clears away, the gap spreads wide enough so we can see the bone. The space fills with blood again, and he holds it in the cold running water. He says, “Call Mom,” and I know this is trouble. His voice is at once trembling and calm, and this is the first time I’ve heard him ask for our mother. I’m reminded of our one main rule, look out for your brothers, but I have never taken care of him. He is the oldest, never crumpled over the sink, staring disoriented into the bottom of the white bowl, gripping its edges. I did that to him, I think. I feel awful, and I’m fascinated.
She’s at work, and I can hear her calculator buttons. I have to tell her twice. I say he needs to go to the hospital.
“You’re just going to have to bandage it until I get home tonight. I can’t leave work because of this. You know I can’t.”
I place the phone on the receiver and look at the clock above the television. Just past two, and she won’t be home until five. In the bathroom, Jim’s already wrapped a wet rag around his fist. I tell him what Mom said and he grimaces, staggering through the living room, toward the front door. I am unsure why he wants to go outside, and he seems altogether unsure what to do with his body. Instinctively I know he’s afraid to sit down because he’ll vomit and pass out. I’m scared but also feel a feather fluttering in my chest, and I struggle not to laugh. Why, I don’t know. We reach the front porch and he finally sits down against the wall and looks out over the sunlit lawn. His forehead creases as he stares at his swabbed hand and asks, “Why did you do it?”
Exactly what I’ve been wondering.
Ordinarily, I’m the safe one. Overly anxious and too sensitive, everybody says. My father, my older brother, our friends. Most of my life, this is the longest word I’ve known. My word. I think too much, about the pain that could happen, all the trouble. I’ve always thought there was no sense in it, the violence, up to now. But standing beside him, I say I’m sorry and I don’t know why. Only the truth is I do, and it’s simple. I wanted to see what would happen. Where this would take me. Later I’ll say I was standing up for myself, that he deserved it, and I wasn’t going to let him push me around any more. But the answer not quite congealing in my own blood is that I needed to know myself as the dangerous one, to hold my hand steady and muster all my indignation to feel the hot rush of power. To be equal. Now, all I know is when he puts his back to the wall and lets his eyelids flutter shut, I will stay by his side until they open, till the bleeding stops, and my brother comes to.