My only brother was born three months after my father died of a heart attack in his sleep. I remember a loud man who lumbered up from the basement on occasion to be either funny or scary, but I cannot recall his death. I later realized my father was constantly drunk. The season separating him and my brother was when I passed from infancy to childhood. I emerged from a gel-tinged world of scattered, hazy scenes and landed in a brightly lit place where every sound, thing, and word radiated importance.
A giant sausage mummified in blue wool with an open circle near one end showing the red flesh of his face was placed on my lap. "Leo, this is Bartley, your brother," said Mom from her hospital bed, sounding faint, hair glued to her scalp.
"What do I do?"
"Love him. Take care of him while I rest a moment."
She drifted off and soon a towering nurse in white gently pried him from my grip. I was alarmed and followed closely behind her, watching every move as she placed him in the bassinet. I stared through the thick clear plastic, wondering what he was thinking while Mom slept and the nurse went on to other duties.
I could not say Bartley so I called him Arlee and everyone came to know him as Arlee.
He was my first obsession. I tried to guess what he wanted when he cried and what he sought when he reached out. I would rub his cheek to calm him, and try to make him laugh. I helped feed him. I helped change him. I came to believe I was the one who looked after him. Mom and the sitters she hired were my assistants. Every day she left for her job at the Municipal Building, I would eye that day's sitter and tell her, "He can't talk or use the toilet. His pants are diapers. Lunch is in the fridge. Snack is at two o'clock. Shoes, socks and jackets if we go outside and only go outside if it's sunny. Can't go in the barn. Can't go past the barn."
Arlee's first word was Leo; perfectly pronounced. I swooned to the sound of my name in his voice while his lip curled up ever so slightly. By then Mom's face already wore the troubled look that was not so much regret but rather a permanent, quiet discomfort; the kind that fastens to people who believe they have missed out on something.
Our farm was a coarse, inherited place that had been homesteaded by our family in the 1860s. When my father took over, all crops ceased and trees began to randomly spike through our once-cultivated fields. The house was creaky and wooden, drafty with sharp eaves - the kind of thing town people find charming until they live in one. Our barn was a collapsed woodpile of old timbers enclosed in a low rectangular wall of crumbling stone and mortar. Our borders to the west and south were roads, to the east the McLachlan Farm, and to the north a ridge where a steep escarpment fell away to the Grayfield Company Quarry below.
A lime kiln was hidden in the most distant corner of our land, near where the fence of the McLachlan farm met the escarpment of the quarry edge. I can't remember how I discovered it, but Arlee never found it until I showed him. I kept it to myself for years: a magic circular hole in the ground, five feet across, dropping straight down like a buried smokestack, surrounded by weeds and a ring of crumbling redbrick. If you did not know it was there you could fall in so easily. It was my sanctuary. Lying next to it, I would peer into the abyss as the shadows of weeds crept around its walls in a rising spiral that mirrored the transit of the afternoon sun. I would stare beyond the light, finding miniature worlds and magic people, whole towns, cities and lands. I waited for the kiln people to emerge to be my friends.
One day, as I stared into the gray depths, I heard a gruff, flat voice. For a moment my heart raced; believing it was the kiln people. Mr. MacLahlan called again, standing at his fence, beckoning me over. He explained that the kiln was ancient, a relic once used to make quicklime for mortar. It would burn for three days, and everything inside would be transformed. He said I should stay away. It was dangerous.
As Arlee grew bigger he would run into my room and hit me, but instead of smacking him back, I would grab his hands tight and say, "I'm your brother. Don't hit me. You can't hit your brother." He would squirm, I would let go. If he hit me a second time I would ignore it. Sometimes, walking away, he would mutter back at me in mockery, "I'm your brother. Don't hit me." This, too, I ignored.
Despite Mr. McLachlan's warning, I explored the kiln all the more. If I wanted to be alone, away from Arlee and Mom, I would go to the hole and its mystery shadows that tuned my senses to a fine hum. Everything became electric, loaded with possibility.
I ventured down the escarpment one day and discovered a horizontal tunnel into the hillside, into the kiln. I crawled into this passage, crouched low to avoid hitting my head on the stone ceiling, and scraped along quietly to not disturb the kiln people who lived there. An exhilarating wash of fear came over me when I reached the bottom of the shaft. Much as I tried to be quiet, they had sensed me coming and dispersed into the cracks of the charred brick walls, taking with them their homes and horses and cars, leaving just before I arrived, but leaving no trace.
Lying in the ashy dirt of the kiln floor, I stared up at the perfect disk of sky overhead, framed by the long barrel of brick. There, like the limestone before me, I was transformed, made new. I became, variously, a hero, a fighter, a genius. In the absence of meeting the kiln people, my consolation was temporary metamorphosis.
Arlee turned eight. My gift for him was the kiln. I told him about it for days, building up all the wonder it held. On a Saturday we set out for our adventure, walking up the ridge.
"Here it is," I said, on all fours, pulling away grass and weeds. He stood next to me, his toes on the brick circle, hands on hips and staring down.
"So?" he said.
"Isn't it cool?"
"It's a stupid hole, Leo." I wanted to punch him, but he was my brother. It was his birthday.
"I'll show you how to climb inside."
"Don't want to."
I walked to the escarpment and down my path, telling myself that he would follow, but he did not. When I lay down on the kiln floor, he stared at me from above, his head a dark silhouette against the blue. "You want to come down?" I asked again, calling out to him.
"No." His voice was barely a whisper, yet firm; the kiln carried the sound like a wire pulled tight between two cans.
"It's stupid." His head disappeared, and I worried he would wander off but I did not move. My kiln seemed suddenly less magical. I felt foolish.
He reappeared, again a darkness against the sky, his arm extended toward the centre of the circle. A small spot at the end of his arm grew suddenly large as I was showered with dirt and stone, stinging my eyes and face, filling my mouth with grit and thumping like lead onto my chest. I flew to the tunnel, coughing, enraged, and hurt.
I sputtered up the hill. To my amazement, he had not run away, but stood at the kiln mouth smirking at me.
"Leo's a baby. Leo's a baby. Leo's cry-ing!"
"Yes. Yes. Yes." He danced around the hole, toes flirting the edge.
"No. Arlee. Get back. That's dangerous."
"Baby. Baby. Ba-by."
I was terrified he would fall. I wanted him to fall.
"Race you home!" I said. It was the only distraction I could think of that he would not resist. I had raced him hundreds of times around the yard and up and down the lane, me lolling along with intentional slowness, slow enough for him to keep up, and at the very end I would let him win.
Not today. I ran. His calls and cries faded in the distance and the farther I went, the faster I became, legs accelerating as a creeping web of pain spread through my thighs and lungs. I was on the porch when he arrived, still winded but exultant in my first runner's high. He was inconsolable, brushing past me, stomping up the stairs to his room. It felt so good.
The buzz wore off and I went to him, found him on his bed. "Don't be sad Arlee, it was just a game, a running game. Don't be sad, it's your birthday."
From that day on, I was a runner.
Two weeks later I returned to the kiln, alone, to find his Big Jim and Kung Fu dolls guarding the entrance where the tunnel opened to the kiln above. The disembodied limbs, heads and torsos of other toys were spread across the dirt floor. Near the wall, a group of tiny plastic soldier men, toys he had taken up when I stopped playing with them, were knocked on their sides and covered with dirt. I never returned to the kiln after that, though I never said a word to Arlee about it. He had colonized the home of my imaginary people with his plastic ones.
Soon we were old enough to ignore each other. I was too serious for him. He was too wild and random for me. I would learn all I could, stay out of trouble, be right about everything, and one day I would get away. Arlee was not in that plan.
Events would sometimes bring us briefly together. There was the spring when I turned sixteen and we stole a car. I had passed my driver's test and Mom let me take her car to town for a Saturday afternoon. Arlee jumped in with me and we drove the five miles together. He switched radio stations every minute and begged to drive, just this once? When I refused he leaned over and pressed all his weight on my right leg, forcing it down on the gas, accelerating us up a hill toward a four-way stop. Instead of punching him like I should have, I braked with my left foot as hard as I could, bridging my neck against the headrest like a wrestler trying to escape a hold. We slowed. He gave up. We cruised to a stop, the car full of the acrid reek of burnt brake lining. He laughed, punched me. I said, "Don't do that ever again."
"Okay, Leo. I won't do that again." His emphasis on "that" was pronounced.
In town he acted like he knew everybody; waving, saying hi and hello and how are you to people as though he was mayor. I wanted to go to the library but he wanted to sit on the hood, in the grocery store lot, watching everyone come and go. I wasn't going to leave him by himself. He was my responsibility so I sat with him all afternoon until I told him it was time to go home. He jumped up.
"We've got to do a last walk around," he said.
"We've got to show some more. Let's walk around town."
This was easily done. There was only one real street. We walked in the long shadows of day's end, him smiling and greeting people, me both embarrassed by him and, secretly, amused. At the end of Water Street, a small car idled in an alley, door open and empty. A sign for Peter's Pizza was strapped to the roof.
Arlee went to the car, to the passenger side. "Check it out!" he drawled as he let himself in. I followed, looked in through the open driver's side. He was biting into a slice of ham and pineapple, looking up at me indignantly.
"What the fuck," he said, "get in!" I did. "Let's go!" he yelled.
"What?" I said.
Without thinking any further I put it in gear and away we drove, faster than I ever wanted to go, up the alley and out of town. I laughed convulsively, from the base of my spine. We drove the car into a field two miles away and ate pizza until we were full, our hearts beating with adrenaline thumps. The rush and the pizza were more delicious than anything I had known and I feared how good it was, but what stunned me most was Arlee's ease. Leaning back in the seat, stretching his legs out, grinning and chewing slowly, he was so comfortable. As we left the car, he smeared grease from the empty pizza box everywhere: doors, steering wheel, gear shift, console. "Fingerprints," was all he said. He smashed a window with a large stone.
We walked back to town under the cover of darkening fields. As we approached the bright lights of the grocery store and Mom's car, a weight settled upon me. I said, "Arlee, you can't go around doing this kind of thing."
"What? Eat pizza while my brother steals a car?" I nearly threw up, hearing myself called a thief. "Don't worry, Leo. It's not like I take this kind of thing seriously."
The theft was gossip for a week, but no suspects were ever found. It could have been a bond of mischief between us, but my fear, my guilt, made the memory impossible to enjoy, I avoided him all the more.
I spent that summer working for Mr. McLachlan - odd jobs and work in the field. His kids weren't old enough to be of much use. It was help that he wanted, not companionship. I would arrive at his door at six am and he would tell me through the screen, with terse efficiency, what was to be done. Even when we worked side by side he rarely said much more than the instructions for the day, and I took this to be a demonstration of what he meant when he said he was Presbyterian.
He paid me cash every Friday and every Friday I drove to the bank and deposited all of it, saving not for a rainy day, but for the bright and sunny day when I would leave. Arlee pestered me constantly. "Just a buck, just a buck. I'll pay you back." But I quickly learned that he paid nothing back. Each time I refused him he threw a fit that would only be quieted when Mom opened her purse.
"You shouldn't do that," I said to her. "He's got to earn it."
"He's too young," she said. "Not everybody is like you, born acting like you're in charge of everything." She grinned, which angered me.
When I caught him stealing from her purse - casually pulling out two dollars, I said, "What the fuck? You're stealing. You're stealing from your mother."
He shushed me with a scrunched face, motioning for me to be quiet. He slipped one bill into his jacket and the other into my hand. I heard Mom's footsteps on the stairs and crumpled the bill into my pocket.
"Having a stare-down, boys?" she said as she lit a cigarette. She strolled past us to the TV room.
"Say a word," said Arlee, "and I'll tell her it was you." He walked away and sat on the couch with her to watch Miami Vice.
I still have that dollar. It sits on page 153 of a book I have never finished. I could never bring myself to spend it, nor muster the courage to put it back in her purse, for fear of getting caught.
One night I returned from the McLachlan's to find a police car parked at our house. I walked up with deliberate strides, measuring my breath as though in the early stages of a 1500 metre race: don't make an early mistake, they cost too much, don't be eager, show no fear. Two officers stood at the door, Mom defiantly before them in the doorway, hands on her hips. Arlee skulked behind her like a resentful puppy. The cops turned at the sound of my approach and I felt suddenly both victim and suspect.
"And who do we have here?" said the shorter cop.
"Leo. He's a straight-A student."
"Leo. Yes. Track star. I've heard of you."
"And he's of no interest to you either," she said. "Get inside Leo."
I stepped past the cops and Mom. The tall cop said, "I'm sure we could clear this up, ma'am, if we were to have a look around."
"My boys aren't crooks," she said. I saw Arlee's loathing rise, inflating him like a breaking wave.
"Let them in, Mom," he said, crossing his arms. She hushed him. "No. I'm serious. Let them in. I've got nothing to hide." She pushed him away but he insisted. When she acquiesced they began walking through our house, opening drawers and looking in closets. I did a mental inventory of all I had and, though all logic said that I, too, had nothing to hide, I followed the cops closely as they went to my room, and watched as they lifted the mattress.
"Somebody's really interested," said the tall one. "Why don't you just tell us where to look?"
After they left I went to Arlee. "What was that?" I said.
"Just pigs being pigs."
"What did they want?"
"Oh fuck Leo, what aren't they looking for? Don't you ever watch TV? Whatever it was, they didn't find it. And why," he winked at me, "why would they?"
"What did you do?"
"Oh fuck. Nice. Nice Leo. Way to stand by your brother. Maybe it's you they want. Maybe you shit your pants in that pizza car and they've traced the corn."
I became more obsessed with getting away. I had good marks and I could run the 1500 fast enough to draw attention from track coaches at a few universities across the border in New York State. The possibility of life beyond the farm became my necessity.
Arlee spent much of grade eight in detention, coming home late, sometimes with a torn shirt or bloody knuckles or other signs of a punch up, but I knew better than to ask. Questions sent him into an accusatory rage. Mom, by then, had either given up or knew enough not to bother.
She rented a cabin for a few days the next summer, in honour of my winning regionals in the 1500, and for Arlee graduating grade eight without being held back. It was a weatherbeaten clapboard cabin, with a main room and two small bedrooms, built into the side of a gentle hill. The door opened toward a lake we could not see for the trees, but the beach and public dock were only a short walk through a buggy section of wood. Mom sat on the porch and read romance novels and The Weekly World News. We played cards at night, the three of us, with a soundless TV aglow in the corner. Arlee was perpetually restless. Moths threw themselves against the screen door.
In the daytime I would swim by myself or fish from the public dock, while Arlee excitedly came and went.
"Oooh, baby you are gorgeous," he said, suddenly appearing behind me one day as I was reeling in. He was staring at a motorboat idling in the near distance. He pulled a comb from his back pocket and dipped it in the lake. Three passes on the left side of his centre part, another dip, three passes on the right, his eyes in trancelike concentration, lips puckered as if to kiss the air between him and his fantasy. He slipped the comb into his pocket.
"Yes, baby, you are mine." A girl in a white bikini was handing a tow line to a guy in the water who waited with his foot jammed into a slalom ski.
"Honey, you are mine." She looked up. Arlee waved. She looked away. "Fucking cunt," he said. He grabbed the fishing rod from me, checked the tripled barbed lure, and reached back to cast as the motorboat rumble built to a high whine. "Stupid chicks, only go for the rich guys."
He cast in a high arc that crossed the skier's path as the boat began to pull him along in the water. Arlee braced himself as the rod tensed into a U, then slackened as the skier yelped and fell backward, the tow handle skidding away with the boat. Arlee reeled in, possessed by a frantic giggle. When the lure emerged from the water, he stared lovingly at the small tendril of flesh that hung from one of the hooks. He fingered it with glee, pried it loose and tossed it into the water before handing me the rod, which I accepted with dumbfounded disgust.
"How 'bout that, Leo? What've you caught so far?" Out on the water, they pulled the skier into the boat and one of the girls was pointing back at us.
"Arlee, you're nuts," I said. He smirked, said nothing and I wanted to gouge out his eyes. The motorboat pulled up to the dock and a burly shirtless guy jumped out. He was my age and yet he had this boat and his buddies and girls in bikinis riding with them. My fishing rod suddenly felt like a little kid's toy.
He pulled me up by the shirt. "You see that?" he barked, forcing me to look at the bleeding horizontal gash on his friend's leg. It looked like someone had scored a line across his shin with a disc cutter. I could see where the hook had torn away, making the cut wider.
"Yes," I said, trying to sound as sincere and serious as I could be. "It's awful."
"D'you do that?"
"It was an accident. I'm sorry," I breathed.
"Yeah. I'm sorry," I repeated, not daring to look at Arlee, hoping he would stay silent.
"You do this all the time, slash people with fish hooks?"
"No, sir." A surge of hate rose up in me; I called him sir. Arlee jumped in, his voice so full of authority that the guy holding me and the others in the boat looked at him.
"Man, you guys got to get to a hospital," he said. "Seriously. That could become an infection, like flesh-eating disease. Inch an hour. You've got to get to the hospital."
"Let's go, Jim," said one of the girls. "To the hospital. Let's go."
"Car's at the other dock," said Jim, his grip on me still firm.
"Then we'll go to the other dock."
He nodded and let me go.
Then he punched me, an open palm punch slapping the side of my head, knocking me into a backward stumble as the sting radiated across my face. My eyes watered and I spun away from him. When I turned back they were pulling away in the boat, my fishing rod and tackle box with them.
"Fucking jerk, that guy," said Arlee, "You didn't do anything wrong." I stared at him in disbelief. "What?" he said.
"Asshole." I walked away, toward shore.
"What?" he said again. "I was there for you. I had your back. He'd have killed you otherwise. Seriously," he was now walking with me, "I saved your ass there. If I hadn't spoken up he'd've pounded you. Man," he snorted, "you should have seen your face." I walked away quickly.
My final year of high school, I shared the halls with Arlee, the grade niner. He had an instant following of friends that were hoodlums. They could always be found hanging out near the side door. I doubt he went to half his classes. When I asked him he said, "What's the point? School's for morons." This stunned me. I was too buried in my tunnel toward university to consider how banal grade nine would be to one who saw no future in school. I tried to convince myself that he would outgrow his boredom.
I began running from home to school two mornings a week, to get in extra training. The first time I did this, the school bus caught up with me in the third mile, and I heard Arlee call out, "Nice shorts, prancing freak!" to a chorus of jeers and laughs. The second time, the bus passed me in the fourth mile, where I was greeted with a jelly sandwich that slapped into the back of my head. I began running to school every day, setting out half an hour earlier so I could be ahead of the bus. After school I stayed late, catching rides home with Mom; I vowed to never take the bus again.
I was the anti-jock: the athlete who did not play, was not popular, who wanted only to be somewhere else, be someone else. I had friends on the track team who respected my speed, but kept their distance. I was good at my sport but, unlike the real jocks, I was saving all the advantages this could offer for later. I never went to a party.
Our avoidance of each other, at school and at home, was intense. We would not acknowledge each other in the halls. I was exactly the guy Arlee and his friends sneered at.
My plan worked: scholarship to an American college, across the border and one hundred miles away. I was leaving. When I showed Mom the offer, she simply nodded her acceptance and turned away, and from this I divined that she was quietly proud.
In the twilight of that summer, long after graduation but still a few weeks before I would leave, Mom decided to have a celebration dinner. She asked who to invite and I said nobody; I couldn't stomach the thought of anyone from the track team seeing our run down dump of a farm. She invited Mr. and Mrs. McLachlan and the five of us had a quiet meal together. Mrs. McLachlan, looking much like Mom, was as tight-lipped as her husband. They gave me a travel bible as a gift; Arlee could barely keep a straight face. I thanked them. They declined the offer of wine with dinner and, when Mom went to the kitchen, Arlee reached for the bottle and filled their glasses. As they watched, speechless, he took one for himself and handed the other to me. "To your travels," he said. We clinked, and I for that moment loved him again, my little brother who might do just about anything, anytime.
She returned, shook her head at the sight of our drinks and poured herself a full glass. The McLachlans excused themselves as soon as dinner was over, wishing me the blessings of God. We opened another bottle after they were gone and laughed together into the evening, the three of us like friends, making fun of our neighbours. Mom was at ease in a way that warmed me, and Arlee's contempt seemed to withdraw for a moment, as did mine.
Mom went up to bed and Arlee got into a mood for wandering. "Come on man," he said, "can't sleep with a buzz. Let's go to the quarry."
It was late and I felt good as we walked together. We sat down on large rocks at the escarpment edge, not far from the lime kiln, and I was overcome for a moment by the passage of time: we had not been here together since I had brought him long ago on his birthday. In the quarry all was still. The long necks and fat bodies of the machines like silent skeletons. The pond in the middle of the pit was flat, a mirror for the moonlight. The far wall of the quarry, which seemed so distant in daytime, was clearly visible and near in the stillness.
We had sat quietly together for a long time when Arlee said, "Always figured you'd be leaving." I heard the jab in his voice, and I tried to measure my response.
"Just going to school for a few years, that's all."
"What's wrong with the school you got?"
"That's what's given me the chance to go."
He threw a stone over the side and I listened for the clack of impact, a sound that never came. "You think we're not good enough," he said.
I know now that this may have been his way of reaching out to me. And perhaps the soldiers in the kiln, years before, had been a similar gesture. But for me, it was all invasion and theft. Maybe, by the quarry that night, I could have talked to him honestly. He was dead right but, hearing him say it, it sounded so wrong. I calmed myself to respond.
"We're all plenty good enough, Arlee. Just different."
"Different," said Arlee, in a questioning voice.
"Different," I said, mustering quiet certainty.
From across the quarry came the whistling rip of a bullet and the reverberating pop from the gun that launched it. It passed high overhead.
"Somebody testing a shotgun," I said.
"You're an idiot," said Arlee. "That was a rifle. Probably a twenty-two or a thirty-thirty." I knew nothing about guns.
Then came another spinning whizz over our heads and its echoing blast. Arlee pulled a cigarette from his pocket. He was in the habit of lifting one or two from Mom whenever he had the chance. He lit up and flicked the burning match over the cliff. I shrunk down on my rock, lying nearly flat on my back in case there were more shots, but casual, as though just resting for a moment. I stared at the glowing red dot of his cigarette. When he inhaled, the circle grew bright, making everything around him darker, more obscure.
Another bullet came, closer, the whistling sharper, louder and lower to the ground; our silence in the face of danger courting worse. Arlee sat up tall and smoked the last half inch in one long drag. "If the bullet's meant for you," he said, "you can't hide from it." That line was, no doubt, from a movie.
Another shot. "I'm going back," I said. "You should come too."
"Pussy. I ain't movin."
He sat perfectly still and I suddenly, so badly, wanted to be him. The envy was so clear, so shocking. Several moments passed before I spoke again.
"Come on Arlee, we should go."
"Don't be an idiot, Leo."
I crept away, keeping low until I was protected by the downslope of the hill. At the house, I turned and watched him for a long time. He sat straight up in the dark, outlined against the sky, his glowering stare no doubt fixed on the unseen gunman across the way; his private firing squad, distant and blind.
I began to sweat, not the endorphin-laced glow of running but the drowning perspiration of flu. My stomach and arms flexed with involuntary spasm. March up that hill. Punch him if you have to. Tell him something; teach him a lesson. But I did not move. I could not imagine anything I would say that he would hear. I was unable to change Arlee. I am unable to reinvent him. I have never been able to live with ease like him.
I failed at loving him. I hated Arlee. I hated his comfort with what we were.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Ken Murray. All rights reserved.