It Was Night
My brother’s head sounded like a rabbit’s foot drumming against the baize-coloured carpeting of our room. I had been dreaming about Sarah Claire at our school. She had rabbits. Lots of 4-H stuff, which was why I was mulling signing up. The spittle at the edges of Maxwell’s mouth made him look rabid and he was contorting as if he didn’t have a backbone.
I think I said ‘Go, Max, go!’ even though I knew something was well past wrong and death could be here, in the room, maybe behind the Darth Vader alarm clock we had held on to since we were only five or six. I said it to calm me.
Then I screamed. I wouldn’t have thought my dad would have known what to do, but it was like he and mom had done drills for this, the way we did reps at basketball practice. She broke for the phone, he pried open Maxwell’s jaws, got his finger in there.
‘Keep breathing,’ he said, repeatedly, more calmly each time, until you could hear the ambulance men running up the stairs.
I listed that Darth Vader clock on eBay years later when I was married. My nightly ritual involved staring at it in the same room, which had become a study with a bed, and talking to Maxwell, or what I thought of Maxwell. I’d pretend a whole other life existed, that my parents were dead, that my wife had moved to California, and that this was Maxwell’s house now. I was just in it, for a spell, and sometimes he passed through.
We only had this conversation at night, which was the only time I shaved. I felt like I had to prep to face the evening, dressed and clean-shaven. I shaved by the window, with my reflection in it, catching Max’s reflection behind me when he came in with his whiskey tumbler and a bottle of water for me.
‘You know, you almost killed me in this room,’ he said.
I told him that I would never hurt him, which was a lie, because I had hurt him. I told him I was sorry for kicking the shit out of him that day when we were coming home from school.
‘You looked to make sure no one was around.’
‘Yes, that’s true. I did that.’
Someone told me that he told Sarah Claire that I would stick the handle of a hairbrush up my ass for pleasure, the same brush I used on my head the morning before school. When I learned he asked her out – her friend told me Sarah Claire was even thinking about sucking him off – I figured I’d just kick his ass. We’d be square.
But I could never get mad at my brother. I pushed him up on the way to our house and we started wrestling and we were mostly laughing. He pulled off my shoe and I kicked him, got him right near the temple. And since he kept laughing and I didn’t have a shoe on, I did it again – and that night he had his stroke.
It was night in my brother’s brain for a long time. That was how he described it to me. ‘Like a place where there’s no sun. But it’s hot, black beads of sweat pouring down you. And then eventually I died.’
Sometimes my wife Elizabeth would ask me if I would try to love her again. I would ask her the same question of myself. Until that point I would have told you that if one person were asking the other that question, it might end up okay. But I didn’t know. Sometimes I thought Maxwell might.
Before my mother had died I had gone to her and told her what I had done that day. Elizabeth and I went at night to the rest home she lived in. We were there because I had become so distant and Elizabeth thought this might bring me back.
‘I cannot help you when you are this far away.’ She’d say this a lot, and my wife tended to tell the truth. She waited outside while I spoke to my mother.
‘There is something about that night that you don’t know, Mom,’ I said, having muted the sound on the TV, a Perry Mason re-run. Even when my dad died at midnight – he only got to age fifty-five, which was notable enough to earn a kind of distinction – we reserved ‘That Night’ for Maxwell. I guess you could say my father was a daytime decedent, though it was pitch black when he went.
‘What did she say?’ my wife asked when we were back outside.
‘She says a lot of things now that don’t make a lot of sense,’ I told her. ‘She said that Max would have kept his shoe on.’ My wife touched my arm and made that face that looks partially like a wince, but also means, I feel what you feel.
‘She said we love people for the people we see in them.’
My wife added that she agreed, that sometimes we do, but that’s not why she loved me.
We were losing each other at that point. ‘I love you because of how you see everyone else,’ she told me.
And that’s what I say to Maxwell, as I shave, as I prep in the night. I see the reflection in the window that makes me think of him.
‘You’ll go to her,’ he says, and I hope he is right.
Colin Fleming‘s most recent book is Meatheads Say the Realest Things: A Satirical (Short) Novel of the Last Bro. His fiction appears in Glimmer Train, Harper’s, the VQR, Boulevard, and Post Road, with other work appearing in The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and the TLS. He’ll have a book in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series in 2021 on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, a volume from Auteur looking at 1951’s Scrooge as the ultimate horror film, and a short story collection from Dzanc called If You [ ]: Fantasy, Fabula, Fuckery, Hope. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com
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