She was thin, with long brown hair, green eyes, and a mole that grew where her nose folded into her cheek. The beat-up red Ford hatchback was a rebuild project from her father, who ran his own mechanic shop in town. From the back seat, I would connect the brown freckles on her white skin from ear to neck to shoulder, stopping when the fabric of her shirt obscured the next connection. I sat with my feet sticking straight out of the seat, my legs not yet big enough to bend downward. Matthew, who was sitting beside me, stood up and laid his head on the back of the headrest of the empty passenger’s seat. His wavy hair was parted to the side, but the curls had resisted the pull of the comb and had largely returned to their natural position. His collared shirt stuck out from the top of his tiny, faded-brown sweater, which perfectly matched the color of our skin. She fumbled with some papers while sitting in the driver’s seat as I started over, tracing the freckles on her neck. Matthew stared out of the window, his head resting peacefully.
“I have a question,” she finally said, her eyes remaining fixed on the papers in her hand.
“What do you think of David being you boys’ daddy?”
I looked over at Matt, as he popped his head up from the headrest.
“Are we still going to go to the park?” he said.
“Yes, if you boys are good.”
“He’s a good man,” she continued. “You’re both lucky that he wants to be your daddy.”
For a moment, I caught
her eyes in the rearview mirror, then she began looking over the papers again. Finally,
she gently folded and slid them back into the envelope before turning around to
address us directly.
“Listen, it’s time to go inside. I want you boys to behave. No fighting. Since David is going to be your daddy, we have to take his name. I’m going to take his name and you boys are too. That other man doesn’t want you boys, so we are all changing our last names. But to protect you, Yousef, we can change your name to Joseph. Doesn’t that sound better? Don’t you want the same name as your daddy?”
“Come up to the house,” David’s voice boomed over the plastic,. intercom.
I moved swiftly from the bunk beds to the center of the shed, where the intercom sat next to an Encyclopedia Britannica on a half-broken wooden bookcase. I pushed the plastic button to respond.
“Ok, I’m on the way”
“I’m on the way?”
“I’m on the way, sir.”
“I got to go,” I said to Matt as he rolled his eyes. I smiled back at him and we laughed.
Matt adjusted the oil-filled space heater which had a frozen pizza sitting on top.
“Save some for me.”
I ran without shoes from the shed up to the house. The cold mud squishing between my toes. At the front door, I stopped at the “Welcome” mat and carefully pulled the stickers from the thick parts of my feet. Then I took a deep breath and walked into the warmth of the house. David sat in his chair and a man I had never seen before sat on the adjacent couch.
I waited silently as the two men continued to talk.
“I’m getting tired of work’s bullshit,” David said.
The man on the couch smiled wide and then looked at me. I stared at him until the man grew uncomfortable and looked back at David.
“He’s not my supervisor, he doesn’t work in my department,” David continued.
“I hear ya,” the man on the couch said.
David, seeing that the man was distracted by me, looked towards me.
“Where have you been?”
“I came as soon as you called. I was in the room.”
“You sitting out there reading those books?”
“Are y’all going to sit in your room all day or y’all gonna do somethin’ productive?”
“Did you need me to do something, sir?”
“Yeah. Pour us some tea.”
I walked into the kitchen and took out an ice tray from the freezer. Twisting it, I added the cracked cubes to two large glasses. Then I poured from the large red pitcher of sweet tea. Carefully lifting the glasses, I took them to the two men in the living room.
“You can leave ’em on the coffee table,” David said in between sentences.
I set the glasses down as David continued to talk. His voice lowered and then he stopped and looked at me.
“You can go now.”
I walk slower this time, moving back through the carport and across the backyard, stopping to pick out stickers along the way. Matt is sitting in the back of the shed at his easel, in the corner that they had promised to one day turn into a bathroom. It had been a gift to him from our grandparents, and it was his most prized possession. I never was any good at drawing, but I would watch his hands move delicately across the canvas, make note of the small beads of sweat forming on the end of his nose. I would sit silently, where the worn, used carpet gave way to the rough sub-flooring, watching him carefully draw the outline of what he said would be Jimi Hendrix. The white colored pencil contrasting sharply against the black background.
“You want to hang out?” I finally asked.
He held up his index finger as he continued to draw. Then, when he was at a stopped point, he gently set his pencil down and nodded his head yes. We tore the half frozen pizza apart with our hands, and then sat on the bottom of the wooden bunk beds and listened to Nirvana on the radio for a while.
I wasn’t sure how much time had passed when I saw the shed door open again. But I quickly noticed that the sun was much lower and that David was carrying his belt folded in a loop. “What’s wrong?” I said in a sudden panic as Matt stood up from the bunk bed.
“I wanted to ask you boys somethin’.” I could see David’s chest rise.
“What did we do?” I interjected.
“Your mother told me there’s a pizza missin’ from the house. Y’all know anything about that?”
“No. We haven’t been in the house,” I said.
“Is ’at right?”
“No, been out here all day.”
“Are you sayin’ your mother’s a liar?” David took a step forward and balled-up his fist.
“No. But we haven’t bee—”
That’s when David grabbed me by the arm and struck me across the back with the belt. The metal medallions tore at my skin and I let out a low whimper. I knew better, but I couldn’t help it. So, I knew what I had to do. Whichever one of us got the belt first, that was who tried to take the majority of the beating. Sometimes it worked out better for the other, sometimes we both got it. Today was my day. So, I let out a scream.
“I’ll give you somethin’ to scream about!” David swung the belt down harder, across my back, my legs, and my sides. He continued to swing, until his arm grew sore, and he switched to his other hand. When he finally did let go of me, I collapsed on the floor and writhed in pain. Rubbing my back across the floor provided momentary relief, but then my legs would burn and I would lean forward to rub them. David moved to the back of the shed and grabbed Matthew, who was already in tears. He swung his belt until he felt justified.
“And another thing. Don’t be gettin’ no ideas. That black man you saw in the house today? That is the first and only time you will ever see a black man in this house. That goes for camel jockeys too.” I watched as he breathed heavy and I could see the red lines in his nose flare. “I don’t know why you boys make me do this. You got no respect for your mother. I aim to change that.” Then David slammed the door and left the shed for the night.
I wiped the tears from my eyes as I rolled over on my stomach.
“I can’t wait to get the fuck out of here,” I said in between sobs.
“I can’t wait, either. I hate him,” Matt said.
“I love you brother.”
“I love you too.”
The next morning, she called us up to the house. She examined the welts across my back and the deep bruises on our little brown bodies.
“You don’t have to go to school this week,” she said sympathetically as she swiped peanut butter across a piece of white bread. Matt smiled lovingly at her, his large dimples bringing a smile to my face. I could tell my mother was looking at me, but I stared at Matt instead.
The grease sloshed out of the giant pressure cooker and fizzed and hissed on the floor. I stood there watching it for a moment, curious if it would burn through the tile. Then I pulled the fried chicken from the basket with a pair of tongs. Pots and pans slammed together, as I reached down to shut off the timer. Then I took the plastic tray full of fried chicken from the back room up to the front line, where hamburgers sizzled on the grill and frozen fries spit more grease on the floor.
“Spicy chicken up,” I said, opening the hot drawer above the grill where I dumped the breasts inside.
“Get the fuck out of here, Jojo,” Dianco said with a smile.
“Fuck you, man,” I said, playfully lifting a burger spatula into a defensive position.
“Quit that playin’ Jojo,” Dianco said with a laugh.
Seeing the shift supervisor had gone back to her office, I grabbed a handful of chicken nuggets from under the large, hot warming light. They burned in my pocket but I didn’t care. Dianco began to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” the shift manager said, quickly popping her head around the corner.
“Nothing. Dianco is being stupid,” I said, as the chicken nuggets burned my leg through the pocket. I turned and walked briskly past the supervisor towards the back room, where I could shake my pocket and let some of the steam out. Then I went back to washing dishes.
“You got ants in your pants?” Mr. Dempsey asked. I hadn’t seen him sitting on a couple milk crates turned upside down and stacked on top of one another in the corner of the back room.
“Just a hot pocket,” I said with a smile. Mr. Dempsey rolled his eyes.
I scrubbed the pots and pans until I could feel the sweat irritating the skin where the brim of the hat touched my forehead. I rubbed it to get some relief. When the shift supervisor returned to her office, I set out to the front line again. This time, I quickly took two burger wrappers and laid them on the counter beside the grill. Then I toasted two buns and used the burger spatula to lift two patties from the grill. Matt liked mayo with no mustard, cheese, pickles, and ketchup. I carefully wrapped and loaded them in a paper sack and tossed the now cold chicken nuggets on top.
The Chevy Trailblazer was a gift from my grandparents. I had agreed to pay them back in installments. Matt reached over and turned up the Tupac CD as we sped through the final light of the day. David had told us to find somewhere to go for the night, so as we often did, we went out to a place we nicknamed The Shuffle. I pulled the Blazer onto the gravel road that looped through corn fields. And after a few miles, I stopped the car in the middle of the road and looked at the surrounding corn fields. I got out and walked around to the back of the Blazer, opening the tailgate so that we could both sit. Matt worked on rolling a blunt. I could hear the beginning chorus of insects around us, somewhere and everywhere at once, just past the large stalks of corn. The stars sat atop the rows of corn as the remaining warmth of the day wrapped around us like a sweater, insulating us from the below-freezing temperatures of space.
“Remember that movie Children of the Corn?” Matt asked as he rolled the splayed cigar.
“Fuck yeah. Now I do. Why did you tell me that? Now I’m thinking we are going to get fucked off out here.”
Matt laughed as he smoothed over the incision with his tongue. He lifted his large frame from the tailgate and walked to the passenger side of the Blazer. Then he pushed the cigarette lighter in, and looked back to where I was still sitting on the tailgate.
“Why are you going into the military?” he asked, his soft grin slipping away.
“I don’t know. To get away from here. You’re leaving, so what’s the point of me sticking around this shithole?”
“I wish I could stay with you.”
“What the fuck are you
going to do in Oregon?”
“No clue. Finish high school I guess.”
“Isn’t it weird that David is going to be a jailer?”
“He should be in jail,” Matt added.
The lighter clicked. Matt pressed the blunt between his lips and pushed it against the red ring of the lighter. The wind carried the sound of the insects as it swirled through the car. Matt moved back to the tailgate, where he sat beside me again.
“Here, hit this.”
I carefully took the joint and inhaled deeply, holding my breath for as many seconds as I could. I felt my head spin slightly as I passed the blunt back to Matt.
We sat for a time in silence.
“What’s it like to drop acid?” I finally asked.
“Crazy,” Matt replied.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you remember that
game Duck Hunt?”
“I kept hearing that fucking dog. He kept laughing at me. I don’t know who was shooting at the ducks, but every time someone shot, I’d see everything in red.”
“The worst shit, though, was huffing gas. I thought I was on this ship floating through the clouds. Turns out Styx ‘Come Sail Away’ was playing on the radio.”
They paused for a moment as the breeze swept through the corn field again.
“Here they come,” Matt said as he took another drag.
“Stop freaking me out.”
Matt dropped his puffy cheeks.
“I don’t want you to go.”
I stared out into the dark, just past the outline of some corn stalks.
“If you go, you won’t come back.”
I turned to face him and I could see tears reflecting off of his cheeks.
“If you don’t go, when I graduate high school, I’ll come back down here and we can live close to each other. Just like we always said we were gonna do. Watch our kids grow up together.”
I felt a heaviness in my chest.
I leaned over and wrapped my arms around him and I could feel his frame soften and then the warmth of his arms around my shoulders. I used my shirt to wipe the tears away and then reached into the back seat of the Blazer and pulled out the paper sack I had brought from work. I felt a little dizzy, but managed to steady myself with both hands. We unwrapped the now cold hamburgers and sat together under a black canopy full of stars, serenaded by a chorus of insects. The following week, Matt left with David and our mother for Oregon.
“You stay here with your mom and I’ll go pick him up,” David said as he picked up his keys from the kitchen counter. I nervously made my way to the living room couch, which sat under a large array of windows. I stared out into the gray Oregon sky and then watched the tiny drops of water gather on one of the large windowpanes.
“Are you hungry?” my mom asked from the kitchen.
“No ma’am,” I said.
“Are you sure? We have plenty of groceries in the house.” I turned from the window in surprise.
“I’m glad our family is back together,” she said.
“Here, have some potato chips,” she said, reaching into the cupboard.
“You can eat as many as you like.”
I returned to staring out the window.
“David is really proud of you for moving to Oregon.”
“That’s nice of him,” I said. “How’s his new job?”
“He likes it,” she
replied. “Once he clears his background check, he can get off his probationary
I slowly nodded my head up and down, my long nose bobbing like a buoy.
“Cool,” I said.
It had stopped raining for some time when the black Toyota pickup truck pulled into the driveway. I watched excitedly through the window. I could see that Matt had a small bag with him and was wearing a shirt that was a couple sizes too small. I felt a lump in my throat and a churning in my stomach. As the front door opened, I rushed past David to hug Matt.
“I can’t believe it has been four years. I’m so happy to see you!” I beamed.
Matt smiled his big, warm smile revealing the dimples in his cheeks. He sat uncomfortable on the bed in the room that they were to share. We sat and grinned at one another.
“You have gained some weight.” Matt chuckled.
“You have lost some weight.”
“Jail food,” Matt said, trying to keep his face in a smile.
“How was it?”
“I’m ok. I wish I could have seen you more.”
“I’m running to the store to get stuff for dinner,” mom interrupted. “Do you boys want me to pick you up anything?”
“Me too,” Matt said as he furrowed his brow.
“What was it like in
there?” I continued.
“Not fun,” Matt replied.
“What did you do all
“I tried to work, to help the time pass.”
“Did you get paid?”
“A little bit, it was more to add some structure to my day. At night I drew pictures for people and they paid me in cigarettes.”
“How were the guards?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t really deal with them that much.”
“I’m really happy to see you.”
“You boys come ’ere,” David shouted from the kitchen.
“Yes, sir,” I replied.
“Come in ’ere.”
David stood in the middle of the kitchen, his arms folded on top of his protruding belly.
“Matt, a few ground rules if you are going to be staying here for a while. First, you are not to ever bring drugs into this house.”
Matt stood awkwardly in the hall and remained quiet.
“Second, you will not use drugs or lay around. You will help me and your mom.”
Matt shook his head yes.
“Do you understand the words coming out of my mouth?”
Matt did not respond.
“You look like you want to say something.”
Matt took a deep breath and shook his head no.
“You sure?” David goaded. A smirk spreading across his face.
“I haven’t been using drugs,” Matt finally said. “How about you leave us alone?”
David sprang from the
kitchen and grabbed Matthew by his shirt collar and tried to push him against
the wall. Matthew set his feet and stared directly into David’s eyes.
“You think you are tough? You think you are grown now?” David punched Matt in the stomach and watched him fold over. “Get the fuck out of my house you piece of shit. I knew you were using.” Matt slumped towards the room and David followed behind him.
“Pack your shit and get out!” he screamed.
I looked out across the fresh cut grass of a large and manicured field. It stretched out, prim and proper, for some distance. Moving quickly past the long, straight lines that the mower had left, I found where the mowing had stopped. It was among the messy bushes and unkempt grasses that I let my eyes rest. Mt. Hood sat majestically in the background and the warm spring sunshine reflected a clear, blue sky. Music filled the air as I grabbed one of the disposable cameras from the center of one of the tables and snapped a couple pictures.
“Care to dance my lady?” I said playfully to my wife.
“Yes, please.” She laughed as she took my hand. I bowed down low and then swept her into my arms and carried her to the makeshift dance floor.
“I know I’m not much of a dancer,” I said to her.
“But, your brother only gets married once in a lifetime.” We all danced for quite some time and Matt couldn’t stop laughing.
When a slow song finally came on, I watched the man my brother had become. His large brown eyes shimmered. He pulled Christine close and pressed his cheek against hers. The remainder of the dance floor formed a circle around the two newlyweds as they danced. My eyes filled with tears faster than I could wipe them away on the sleeve of my rented tuxedo. As the slow song ended, I walked over to the keg that had been brought into the park. I poured a beer and then sat at some picnic tables underneath an awning. After a few songs, Matt came over and a handful of wedding guests followed him. Then we poured beers and told old stories as the beautiful spring day gave way to an orange swirled evening and then a star-filled night. Finally, Matt walked over and gave me a hug.
“I love you, brother,” he said.
“I love you, too. Congratulations. I’m so happy for you both.”
“It’s about time for us to go,” he said, wrapping me in a big hug.
“Already? I just started
telling them about the time we got suspended from school in Texas.”
“I have a flight to catch.”
“That’s right. Tampa,” I said, feeling the alcohol for the first time.
“You sure you don’t mind feeding the dog while we are gone?”
“No, not at all brother. How hard is it to walk next door and check on him?”
“And feed him too?”
“Yes Matt, and feed him too.” We both laughed.
“I’m so proud of you. Have fun in Tampa.”
I looked past my brother. “Take good care of him Christine!”
Matt and Christine got into their car and I watched it until it disappeared into the night. Then I set out to finish my responsibility of drinking beer and entertaining the guests that remained.
I could feel something chewing through my mind. I sat up straight in bed only to realize that my phone was ringing. I quickly rolled over and answered the phone.
It was a woman’s voice.
“Joe, I’m so sorry.” I could immediately tell it was Christine and she was sobbing heavily.
“We lost him. I’m so sorry, we lost him.”
I looked at my phone confused. Then I checked the clock. It was after 11am. I looked around the room before remembering that I had woke up really early and laid back down around 8am.
“What do you mean?” I said into the phone.
“Your brother.” She sobbed to the point that I struggled to make out the words.
“Matt….he didn’t….he didn’t make it.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Where are you?”
“At the hospital. I’m, I’m, I’m—” She couldn’t finish the sentence.
“Is Matt there with you?” I said.
There was a very long pause. Then she managed to say, “I don’t know.”
“I’m on the way,” I said.
I watched in slow motion as the sun parted the rain clouds with long rays of light. I thought it must be a good sign that the sun fell upon the hospital in the distance. If anyone could pull through, it was Matt, I thought. I parked the car and ran across the parking lot. At the reception desk, the locked doors were all that kept me from bursting into the emergency room, where my brother was at.
“My name is Joseph and I’m here to see my brother Matthew,” I said, desperate to get through the doors.
“I’m sorry sir, we don’t
have anyone here by that name.”
“It might be under Christine’s name. I’m here to see Christine.”
The lady quickly buzzed me into the back room, where I quickly found Christine lying in a hospital bed with a very large bruise across her chest. She was crying and began a low wail when she saw me.
“I’m so sorry,” she said through the deep sobs.
“He. He. He. He wouldn’t
go to rehab or the hospital. He refused to go. He thought they were going to
get him.” She hid her face behind her
arm as she cried.
“Who was going to get him?” I asked. “Where is he? What room is he in?”
“He’s not he- here. He’s not here.” Christine began to wail again. Anger bubbled up inside.
“Where’s my brother?” I said to the nurse.
“Where is Matt? I asked again before the nurse could answer.
Suddenly there was a sheriff’s deputy and though her lips were moving, I wasn’t sure what she was saying.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“Sir, I’m so sorry but your brother is not here. He perished in the car crash.”
“Why is he not here? Shouldn’t they have at least tried to save him? How can they know he’s dead?” My eyes burned from the tears.
“Your brother intentionally crossed over into oncoming traffic. He had a head on collision with a dump truck. He wasn’t wearing his seat belt. He was pronounced dead at the scene.” My throat was so dry that I couldn’t speak. The sheriff’s deputy placed her card into my hand. “If you want to see the police report, or know any of the details, please give me a call.” she said.
“We are calling it a suicide.”
It took me many years to come to grips with my brother’s suicide. I never did call that sheriff’s deputy, and to this day I can only tolerate parts of the story. I’m aware that it was a particularly gruesome death and I think that is more than enough to live with. Over time, for whatever reason, Christine and I spoke less and less. I still weep for Matt. I miss him every single day. Some years later, I remember it being a rainy day, I got a text from Christine. She said that she had found an old picture that Matt had drawn and was wondering if I would like to have it.
On certain nights, when I’m neither fully asleep nor quite awake, a euphony of insects floats in through the window I meant to shut. It settles, ever so slowly across my bedroom, accompanied by the smell of fresh cut grass. In these moments, when our worlds can touch, my brother and I close the space that separates us, if only for an instant.
The following morning, I pull myself out of bed, take my Prozac and then walk over and open my closet door. I carefully take out the large drawing of Jimi Hendrix in colored pencil that Christine had found for me. I carefully place it on my desk, in a way that reminds me of it sitting on Matt’s easel. Slowly, I follow the contour of Jimmy’s hat with my fingers, gently allowing them to fall into his curly black hair. And as the tears flood my vision, I can see him, beads of sweat forming on his nose, drawing the long lines of a face in the windowless back room of our poorly lit shed.