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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Summer Before My Brother Died

by Rob Stanley

The first punch hits me in the left ear and it actually feels good, invigorating. I duck around the next few but the second one to connect hits me in the jaw and it hurts a lot. By the time the third one hits me in the forehead the sweat and moisture gathering on the faux leather gloves has a stinging effect, and that, combined with the actual force of the blow through my neck and spine, leaves me reeling.

“You hit like a girl”, I mutter as I step back and roll my head low across my chest a couple of times, my chin tucked in a defensive position.

My brother smiles. Even he finds that funny.

We’ve been combatants like this for most of my thirteen years, but this battle is different than the others. Those were usually fought inside, on our paper-thin carpet during miniature versions of sports we’d seen on TV; knee hockey in the living room, sponge-ball tennis in the upstairs hallway; full-contact mini-hoop basketball against my brother’s bedroom door. Those were battles. Sometimes just for fun, but most times they had an undeniable edge that my mother hated seeing in us. This boxing thing today though, this is fun.

“That’s enough,” my brother says as he extends one of his gloved hands to cup my shoulder. The air is warm and were both sweating. 

There in our driveway, perched on a hill amidst a hay field that never seems well kept, we draw deep breaths and eye each other. In years past I might have cringed at the prospect of my brother delivering a sucker punch at this point, but Billy and I had changed a lot recently and the thought of a sneak attack doesn’t cross my mind. 

I step into his embrace and let my shoulders slump in a sign of respect to my big brother. This male-affection thing is something we do now, ever since he got back.

“You want some more?” I ask with just enough sarcasm in my voice for him to know he shouldn’t take me seriously. 

He grins again and doesn’t even bother responding. We both know his sinewy strength is more than my pudgy frame can bear, especially considering the fact that he’s three and a half years older and four inches taller than I am. 

To me it seems as if those final inches have been added in the past few months, during the time when Billy was away. That’s probably not true, but I’m shocked at how grown up he is now and can’t settle in my mind why it is I’m viewing him in that light. It’s only been two months since we last saw each other, but it seems like years.

I had been surprised back in the spring when I walked into the kitchen, saw Billy and my parents huddled at our round country table and caught the final hushed syllables of the default advice that my father always seemed to give whenever we asked for help on a topic he didn’t really care about.

“Well Billy, I think you should do whatever you think is right.”

There was usually a passive-aggressive tinge to Dad when he said stuff like this, a sense of him knowing more than you and not wanting to bother having to share on a topic so menial as one that dealt with emotion or a simple life decision, but this seemed different. This time he seemed to be choking back his true feelings, keeping his heart safe behind a wall of good sound advice.

With my back to the table, pretending to rifle through the cupboard for an elusive glass while I tuned my ear to process the emotion in the room behind me, I sensed a slight waver in Dad’s voice, one that he hid it with a quick forced cough, as he probed Billy further

“So, what exactly do you plan on doing in Toronto?”

This being the first I’d heard of my brother in Toronto, or of something as stupid as him willfully leaving me, I dropped my act of lingering over the glasses and quickly turned to face the conversation. All three heads swung toward me, and I was happy to see that none of their faces conveyed malice or annoyance. I took a chance and stepped toward the table, leaving the cupboard door to swing shut behind me, hoping that my presence would be tolerated amongst the adults.

It was. 

And it was there, standing beside the table, hovering over a conversation that would ultimately change our family forever, that I heard of Billy’s plans for the summer. Mom had family there, and his idea involved heading to one of their homes to enjoy the big city as well as the much larger minimum wage that jobs in Ontario offered. He and I didn’t know much about Mom’s family; the bare minimum, really. We knew there were lots of aunts and uncles, and that the word “abuse” often got thrown around whenever the topic of Mom’s absent father came up, but the whole scene was sheltered in some urban dream for us.

Obviously, Billy was ready to experience some of that scene for himself. Dreams didn’t scare him. There was always a sense of largeness and destiny about him, and most of us knew that he wouldn’t be in small-town New Brunswick for long. Back then, he often spoke of travel, of the army, of radio technology school—all large dreams in their own right—but each of them seemed firmly within his reach. He’d always been blessed with an innate sense of accomplishment and likability. Friends gravitated toward him, teachers loved him and young women flocked to him. Even at a young age, he radiated a quiet warmth and a sense of safety that people just found endearing. Listening to his plans to head to Toronto then, wasn’t some flight of fancy, it was the first step in an unfolding plan that most of us thought would end very well for him. 

Of course had I known more, I would have been better able to identify the strange case of déjà vu at play in the room that day. Unlike my brother, who enjoys playing by the rules and excelling, my father has always majored in challenging authority—a trait I certainly come by honestly—as his means of getting ahead. So, when he was seventeen, Billy’s age exactly, Dad had made his own pilgrimage to T.O. Like Billy, it was outwardly because of work, but inwardly a lot more about finding himself. Dad had bounced from job to job until he found what he was looking for while working as a manager at a Kresge’s department store downtown. Not only did he come by security and a steady paycheck, he also found a girlfriend, an unexpected twist, and in a very unexpected turn, she was soon pregnant. Dad, sensing that this teenage tryst needed a man to guide it as opposed to a boy to tease it along, forced his own hand and spirited his girlfriend—my mother—back East on the first bus he could find. She soon became his bride, and soon after, she gave birth to William Jr.—Billy.

It was memories of these days of struggle that soaked my father’s words with unspoken fear as he listened to my brother’s plans at the table that day. He hid them as best he could, but even I could sense the unconvincing tone in his voice as he heard my brother out one last time and offered a final retort, this one even weaker than the last.

“Whatever you think’s right.”

I know my Dad didn’t mean it. I know he wanted to make him stay. 

But he didn’t. 

He let him get on the bus, alone. He let him make money. He let him test he bounds of his overprotective mother’s patience. He let him experience whatever he needed to. 

He let him go. 

And now, standing out of breath beside my brother in the driveway, my face flush with exhaustion and pride, I’m glad that Billy got to go and do all that stuff, but I’m more glad that he’s back. Yeah, I know he just beat the shit out of me, but it feels good to be here, alone with my brother again.

Just then, a flicker of movement catches my attention in the windowed porch that runs along the side of our house. The Rorschach-like reflection of the sunlight on the glass makes it hard for me to make anything out, but as the shadowy object moves and takes shape behind the panes, I can see that it is my father. Apparently, he’s been the lone spectator of our little battle, and he’s stepping out to comment on it.

Before I have a chance to acknowledge him or protest, he quickly covers the five or six strides necessary to reach me and wordlessly lifts one of the boxing gloves off my hand to place it on his own. His eyes are on Billy the whole time, and as he slides the other glove onto his hand I can see that something more primitive than age or ego is fueling this. He circles his son, and they both look like they’re relishing what’s about to happen. 

Billy has Dad’s body down to a T, save for the thick padding that years of office work have added to my father’s midsection, and they both share quick feet and great eye hand coordination. Right now they also share the same bemused look of concentration and outright fear, part cocky grin and part studied intensity. This appears to be in good fun, yes, but I’m sensing there’s a lot more riding on this.

A rush of warmth fills me as I step back from the fray and realize that the grown-ups have again let me be involved. I’m glad I’m here, that no one is telling me to run along, and no one is holding back so I won’t be adversely affected in some way. I’m a participant in this, even if it’s just as an occasional brow-wiper and potential referee. Just the three boys, mano a mano a mano in the driveway. Hell, Mom isn’t even invited.

Before I have time to dwell on things for too long, I’m snapped back to reality by the first wave of punches. Billy and Dad are circling each other and straight right jabs are flying. Only straight right jabs, the safest of all the punches. Each volley is cautious and aggressive at the same time. Skinny arms extending for a quick sting but never venturing too far from a defensive position. As the seconds roll by, the feeling-out process evaporates into the late summer air and the punches extend. They’re longer, a tad slower, but a hint of menace accompanies each one. Adrenaline crackles with every slash, and each one is yearning for some damage.

The cars on the road well below us pass by every so often without even a hint of recognition of what’s happening on the hill above. The waves lapping against the shore of the rocky beach just beyond the road continue unabated as well. All is at it should be, yet a seismic shift for our family is happening right here in the open.

A constant patter of nervous laughter and semi-audible grunts fly back and forth, but the punches aren’t matching the ferocity of the verbal assaults. No one is really connecting, and I’m rather proud of the fact that my bout with Billy had a lot more action than this. Less emotion, but a lot more action.

Just then, a punch lands. Then another. Then there’s a spirited reply that’s none too polite. Eyes are now slits and the mood changes. Another punch lands. My adrenaline begins to flow and the warmth of simply being there evaporates. The action spills into my face and I’m forced to recoil to move away from them. 

They don’t even notice me. 

Another punch. 


Soon my hands are flailing in front of me, trying in vain to deflect the action and voice some protest, but nothing stems the tide. My heart pounds and I realize that this is inching toward the danger zone when a shriek pierces the melee and I cringe from its fierceness.

“God, Bill! What are you doing?”

My mother’s voice jerks us back to reality, and for a moment we pause awkwardly and by instinct try to look as nonchalant as possible. Our hands fall, our backs straighten and the pained expressions ease from our faces. Frozen in time, we all try our best to deflect the intensity of the past few moments.

Mom though, isn’t falling for it. She missed the run-up to the bout because she’d been busying herself inside our house, and now all she has seen is her entire family, all three of us, flailing and spitting at each other in the driveway.

Her shoulders sag incredulously and a look of complete bewilderment causes her mouth to gape wide open. She bores a hole in my father with her knowing gaze, and an elongated blink and a shake of her head is all she leaves him with as she closes the porch door and retreats to the safety of the home she’s created for us.

We’re still frozen in place. Dad is the first to relent, removing his boxing gloves just as silently as he put them on and handing them to me without even so much as a gaze in my direction. He steps toward the void in the doorway where Mom stood seconds before, knowing that any sort of comment would be fruitless. This is going to warrant a longer conversation than that.

Billy and I stand staring, transfixed on Dad’s back as he walks, and wondering if there might be repercussions for us too. As Dad steps up into the doorway he uses the shift in weight as an opportunity to glance back at us over his shoulder. We immediately catch his eye. 

A slight grin crosses his face.

It isn’t a defiant look, or one that could be misconstrued against Mom in any way. It’s simply a man speaking through a look to two other men. Nothing more needs to be said.

Dad disappears into the house. Billy and I shuffle for a second, then realize that we should busy ourselves with something else. We go our separate ways, both filling time with nothing.

I think I ended up listening to Aerosmith, probably “Permanent Vacation”, and reading an Archie comic. I don’t really remember. For me, the beauty of the day had already been cemented.

Rob Stanley lives near Toronto, Ontario with his wife and children.

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