Meeks will be published by Small Beer Press on July 1, 2010.
A Brother’s Story
You may have been wondering: How does a gifted artist with a gentle nature turn to building bombs and dreaming of the wholesale destruction of his homeland?
One afternoon, my brother came home and announced his engagement to our neighbor’s daughter. Needless to say, Mother was beside herself, shouting with joy and relief and exultation, burning through all that is fashionably said on such occasions before moving on to exclamations whose vintage has not been heard since the earth cracked open and gave birth to the mountain ranges. I had to listen to all of it as I lay on the floor of the front room.
“Where’s my little brother?”
“Oh, who knows,” I heard my mother answer, when, in fact, I had lain on the floor in the sun of the front room all day, and she knew perfectly well where I was. I stayed there.
Though I could sense the black shadow of the great bird of heartbreak gliding across open country toward me, I was still pretending that my brother’s change of fortune was a game he and I were playing, and the next day, I followed him to the park, gleefully planning to tackle him against the bachelors’ hill—when I saw him run into the arms of his fiancée and spin her in a circle. I was stunned. He took her hand, and they started down the main path, airing out their good fortune, nodding slyly at other happy couples. I followed. I am not a stealthy man to begin with, and I was making no special effort to move like a cat, and yet they seemed not to see me. Perhaps they were blinded by joy—my brother! my sister!—unable to recognize the deformed animal stumbling through the garbage-laced gloom as one of their own kind.
My brother was as good as gone, lost to some stranger, to a life of soft summer blankets, to weekend picnics, to roasted chickens, rounds of cheese, mild green pears, tins of roasted nuts, salads, dried fruit, pastries, cakes, cookies. Is that what my brother really wanted? To be ordinary, to spend his days going soft, entombed in comfortable rooms, listening deadfaced to the endless narrations of the large and small creatures around him? To be a family man?
I had snuck a bottle from my mother’s house. I pulled it from my inside pocket and took a long, discreet drink, which immediately brightened my view of things and, not for the first time, saved my mother’s youngest son’s brain from obliterating despair. It wasn’t long before the sun sank into the river and people packed up their things and left in droves, and I had drunk most of the bottle and the park lights were giving off their cold, dazzling drunken penumbras, and I was alone, in every sense of the word. I wanted to climb onto the Independence Day stage, strictly forbidden—
But if it’s what you really want?
I hesitated, fond as I was of the Old Counselor. He lived in my brain, but then so did Mother—her dreams, her dread, her sense of shame, they all tripped over each other in the effort to make me afraid of everything I wanted to try in life. All of her thoughts somehow living in my head. I drank until they drowned, and I climbed onto the stage.
I watched two men struggling to carry a third man deeper into the darkness of the park, and I laughed freely at the comedy that derives, inevitably, from men trying to capture and carry unwilling objects. I looked overhead and could see the ghostly tendrils of hangman’s rope swaying among the high branches. I studied the old proscenium: the fog-streaked trees, the slate-blue river, the ships huffing blandly across the black harbor. The ships that had carried the men and women who killed every bird, leaf, frog, bear and snake they found here by naming it. The smile (it was a stupid grin) faded from my jolly sweat-slicked face, and I sank into an oil-black melancholy that I must have loved . . . since I sought it out so often. “And, lo, the ships begot the people,” I declaimed, “and then more ships begot more people.”
I hurled my empty bottle from the stage and heard it shatter against the hard brown fact of trees in the dark, and I saw the shadow of the park bum crouch and run. Always listening. I sighed, took comfort in the comfort that was there for the taking: I was a better man than some men, than at least one man. (Things could always be worse.) But an artist’s job doesn’t stop there, and just as I often tried to think of my oblivious, materialistic, self-absorbed fellow citizens as my brothers and sisters and to love them, I tried now to love and to find room in my heart for this alien being, and I reached an open hand toward the full darkness of the park, and I said, “My brother . . . remember me!” Then I thought of the cold indifference of my real brother. If only I could obliterate once and for all the part of me that needed other people, I might become (through pain) an actor so great that I could lord over some part of the real world, even after death.
I turned back to the proscenium. I rocked back on my heels, I shoved my hands deep into my pockets, I leaned forward, and I charged the scenery with all my strength, slamming my head clean through. I henched that ornamentation like a pro, busted it wide open, and my head, even in the swell of alcohol, burned with pain. I reeled backward, stunned, and put my hands instinctively to my head. I felt that it was slicked with blood, and to my surprise, vomit shot from my throat, and I fell facedown on the stage. I had struck the proscenium at the worst possible angle. In the excitement of what I had done (an extraordinary self-infliction), I saw very clearly just how far I had drifted from other people: no one would find me high up on the forbidden stage, and I would surely die, and die alone, a little tragedy that would be forever alloyed to my mother’s joy over her other son, illuminating her pride with the shining gilt work of her grief.
The picture of the world was flickering in and out, and I crawled to the front of the stage, my hands wet and red, and I was full of foreign feeling—it was terror, terror at the edge of my life. I wanted to be a different man, or at least remembered as a different man, and I cried out from the stage, from the full depth of my being:
’Tis true I hath head-punched the proscenium!
Forgive me, I was drunken when I hath done it.
I came to the next day still prone on the boards, rough against my cheek, and my first thought, despite the severity of my condition, was of the beauty of the smell of the wood. My body had only pain in it (it seemed to be made of pain), and yet I was newly attached to it: I was clinging to this world again, a weak and fearful little man in a blood-flecked pale suit. I heard the taut ropes and metal grommets ticking against the flagpoles as the wind picked up in gusts that smelled like the river, and I could hear the broad-winged seabirds calling out to one another.
Later, I woke again to the smell of the Brothers of Mercy, their talcumy sweat, and I retched, convulsing and coughing up rotten air. I could hear my brother’s voice—No, no, no!—and I managed to open my eyes, and I could see the silhouettes of four or five Brothers standing around me, and I moved my hand, which seemed to weigh a thousand pounds, to cover what I imagined to be a frightening wound. My eyes rolled stubbornly back into my head, into the blackness of my brain, and I strained to see, and I could see that one of the Brothers was holding a gray workman’s smock—No, no, no!—and my eyes rolled back again, and I thought: for once, I’ve got to think clearly about what’s happening to me. I heard my brother arguing, and then I lost him again beneath the piles of black powder accumulating in my head. Distantly, I could hear the shouts of children filling up the park, and I could hear the fountain filling, eternally.
I woke in a small, dim room, on a bed of old coats. It took me a moment to perceive the other shape. My brother was sitting nearby in a wooden chair, his beautiful pale suit replaced by the gray workman’s smock. There was an empty bottle on the table beside him. Until that moment, I had lived a blameless, worthless life. Now I had made something happen—something terrible, of course.
“They took Mother to the Sheds this morning,” my brother said at last. I covered my face with the coarse sleeve of my gray smock, in order to conceal from my brother any happiness that might appear, involuntarily, on my face. My brother and I were together again. Our mother was gone; my acting career was over; my brother’s life was ruined, the love of his life probably weeping in the sun-streamed kitchen of her parents’ house . . . who cares. Our little room, our heart of hearts.
Last night I dreamed that the Brothers of Mercy had me pinned to the ground. They were hunched over me, their heads silhouetted by the setting sun. They were swabbing my face with a strong-smelling cloth that made me want to fight, and I struggled and fought with all my strength, which seemed to amount to nothing. They cut away my pale suit, and then they brought over the park bum and forced him to lick my naked body. I was disgusted—by the smell of him, by the feel of his coarse, wet tongue on my skin, by his muffled voice crying out in protest and revulsion as the Brothers of Mercy pushed his head down again and again. It was almost more than I could bear, but the dream took mercy on me and dropped me in the bow of an old whaler, painted blue and black and white, sailing upriver toward the Mountain Lakes, where our parents had taken us as boys, where the hearth was always hot and the world silent and white, the sleeping bees and foxes waiting in the dark for the golden fuzz and mint green of spring. When I was a boy and I used my brain for other things! Some men were carving up a whale on the shore: clouds of fat fell open in the sun. Some men are innocent, I thought, and others are not, but all seemed well with the world again. The clear, cold water split around the bow. Then I heard a soft thumping, the thunk . . . thunk that always invaded my dreams, and I looked over my shoulder and saw that my brother was in the boat with me. He was slumped beside the fishing lantern; the lantern cast a thin gold light over the water as it swung back and forth, cutting into my brother’s head.
I woke up, sighed with relief when I saw that we were still safely in our little room by the train station. There was my brother, passed out on his bed of coats. I liked to watch over him, just as our mother watched over us when we were boys, leaning over our soft round heads in the dark, dreaming about what we might become. Poor Mother. All of our relationships deform us (i.e., make us “human”), but how do these loving creatures (our mothers) survive the person-imploding disappointments of their sons?
By the time I turned sixteen, I knew who and what I was (an artist). I told my mother that I planned not to marry, but rather to live and die in the theater. After the briefest hesitation, she gave me a wry smile. She was masking internal panic with an amused look—oldest tactic in the book. Then she began to recite the Old Prisoner’s Tale, the grisly tale of “impossible choices” that she had told us almost every night when we were boys. “Do you know the story about the old prisoner?” she said. I had no choice but to listen, and I sat at the kitchen table with her and buried my face in my hands and mumbled, “Yes, but it feels good to remember.”
That night, I watched my brother helping my mother in the kitchen. They were mocking me, asking if the Great Artist would prefer carrots or squash for dinner. I decided that these cheap amusements were a kind of foreign import loaded onto local heads (my mother’s, my brother’s) and that they would fall away in time. They didn’t.
Then they had left me no choice but to fail into my art. I calculated the exact grade of failure necessary, so that I could slide, failing, into what I really wanted: the life of an artist. But the life of an artist is an impecunious one, and I was forced to dine often at my mother’s house, collapsing my sense of outrage into a dense, hot, bright star that I hid in my heart while I filled my belly and fantasized about the day when I would come home a star of the theater, beloved by the people, worshipped by my mother. It was the kind of game I’d always loved to play: the entertainment of false alternatives.
Now I was a grown man, of course, making my own decisions. If my life was once a project for which another (namely, my mother) had the highest hopes, then I was choosing now to build a pyre under it, to use as firewood the life my mother had made and cared for. I’d been sneaking gunpowder from the workshed behind the police station for weeks, hiding it in the upturned cuff of my work pants, which could be easily explained away—I was a clumsy workman, presumably weak with hunger and disease, shakily sorting the gunpowder. My brother came home from his shift at the gum factory and set down three murky bottles of bad spirits, which the factory workers brewed illegally in the storerooms.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“What are you doing?” I said. “That stuff will kill you.”
“You’re one to talk.”
“I don’t go near gum liquor,” I said, touching the scar on my forehead delicately.
“Is that gunpowder?”
“Why, yes it is, Brother. I’ve been bringing a little home every day,” I said, and poured the gunpowder through a makeshift paper funnel into one of our empty tea envelopes. I filed the envelope in the wooden tea box. “See? I’ve thought of everything.”
“I don’t understand what you’re doing.”
“I’m making a bomb,” I whispered, and I was deeply gratified by the look of surprise and fear on my brother’s face.
“You’re trying to make a bomb?”
“No, Brother. I am making one.”
“And what are you going to do with this bomb?”
“I’m going to destroy the city and everyone in it.”
“On Independence Day?”
“That’s right. On Independence Day.”
“How much gunpowder is there?”
“Almost a whole tea box.”
My brother picked up one of the tea envelopes I had filled with gunpowder. “There’s enough in this box to blow your head off, or mine, maybe crack the Reynolds Branch. That’s it. Then the play will go on . . .” While some part of me conceded that he was probably right—he had always been the more practical brother—I pretended not to understand.
Just last week, I was dropping a pinch of gunpowder into my upturned cuff when a Brother of Mercy burst into the room. I let out a small scream. He was out of breath, full of predatory intensity. He took a long, hard look at me and said, “Did you see him?”
I hesitated, wanting to understand the rules of our game better before I jumped in.
“Did you see something?” he said.
“I’m sorry, see?”
“See the prisoner—he got away from us and ran.”
“The prisoner?” I echoed and scratched my head. Against all common sense, I was enjoying his company (I rarely spoke to anyone other than my brother); besides, we were both “professionals,” after a fashion, and there was no harm in a bit of conversational sport, a mood game to be played out of the sight of the citizenry.
“Well, I did hear something,” I lied, and then the man looked pleased, and I was pleased. “It was a sound like chains in a box,” I said, immediately regretting it.
“What are you talking about?” he said, and then he gave me another long look and seemed to think he understood something about me, something he had missed at first, and he turned without another word and left. I went back to stealing gunpowder, looked forward to the day when I would see his body piled among the others.
Julia Holmes was born in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and grew up in the Middle East, Texas, and New York, where she is currently an assistant editor at Rolling Stone. She is a graduate of Trinity University and of Columbia University’s MFA program in fiction. Meeks is her first novel.