Thursday, April 19, 2018

HAND ME DOWN LIFE - a short story

Hand Me Down Life

By Roy L. Pickering Jr.

            “Why would he do such a thing?”
            Austin expected no response to the question.  Evelyn put a hand on his shoulder.  There was little else his wife could do and absolutely nothing she could say that would bring clarity.  The confusion felt by Austin, like the pain, had been selfishly handed down to him by his brother Allen.  Neither gift could be refused.
            Downstairs, the humble home of his parents was teeming with mourners.  Rather than mingling amongst them at the wake, Austin had brought Evelyn to the bedroom shared by he and Allen in childhood.  The room appeared much as it did way back when.  Their parents were the nostalgic type and had found no better purpose for the space than to keep it as a sort of museum. 
            Numerous sports trophies earned by the brothers in high school gleamed from the shelf their father had built to showcase them.  The dates on Allen’s trophies were all three years earlier than the dates on Austin’s.  For every race that Austin finished first in or championship game his team had come out on the winning end of, he was breaking no new ground, but merely duplicating the accomplishments of his big brother.
            Turning to face his wife, Austin found himself hurtling through a time warp.  Evelyn was standing in nearly the exact same place as when he laid eyes on her for the first time.  It had been love at initial sighting, in spite of the words of introduction spoken by his brother.
            “Austin, this is my girlfriend Eve.  Eve, meet my little brother.”
            “Hi,” she said, capturing his heart and imagination with a single syllable.  But Austin put his desire on hold, for he was given little choice.  This was his brother’s girl, and as it would turn out, she remained so for nearly two years.  After their break-up, nine months passed until Austin crossed paths with her again.  Now that she was finally available, he vowed not to let her get away.  Charming her was the easy part.  They already knew their personalities to be a good match.  Mustering the courage to ask Allen if he had a problem with his little brother dating his ex-girlfriend was considerably more difficult.  But once the words were out, Allen simply tousled his air and congratulated him for landing such a great girl.
            Austin picked up a photograph taken back when he was six years old, Allen half a foot taller at the age of nine.  The height disparity would be bridged in the following years, though Allen did manage to maintain a half inch advantage.  In the picture, Allen was staring straight ahead at the camera with a look of extreme confidence, as if knowing that he would come out looking great, both in the photo and in life.  Austin was captured in profile, gazing admiringly at his big brother, his mentor, his hero.
            Allen wore a red cap, a plaid shirt, and a pair of dungarees.  The outfit was quite familiar to Austin, for these items were among several pieces of clothing that came into his own possession later on.  This was a pattern that would repeat itself throughout their lives.  Allen would acquire something, eventually outgrow it, and then it would be Austin’s turn to walk the same mile in inherited shoes.
            Evelyn was looking at a photograph that was hanging on the wall.  It had been taken when the brothers were grown men.  Even as adults, Austin a family man and Allen a carefree bachelor, the two of them still saw each other nearly every day.  In the picture that had grabbed Evelyn’s attention, the brothers posed side by side in the uniforms of their chosen trade, two handsome young men who fought fires and saved lives. 
Noticing his wife’s gaze, Austin could not help but wonder if she was comparing the two great loves of her life; the very first one who ushered her into womanhood and called her Eve; the latter who gave her his name, fathered her children, and chose to call her Evelyn. 
“It’s amazing how strongly Lucas resembles him,” she said, speaking of their second born son, reminding Austin of how awful a chore it had been to tell his kids that their uncle had died.  There was a brief moment of hauntingly still silence, then Lance erupted with a wail of anguish, echoed a second later by his little brother.  Austin instantly knew that Lucas was crying more in reaction to Lance’s pain than to the sad news about Uncle Allen.  Lucas was too young to fully comprehend the nature of death yet.  He was the lucky one.
“Mandy seems very nice.  What did she tell you?”
Mandy was Allen’s girlfriend.  Neither of them had met her prior to the day of the funeral.  It was Mandy who found Allen’s body hideously splayed on the floor of her walk-in closet, the white carpeting already turned mostly crimson.
“Nothing that explains anything,” Austin answered.  “She said he didn’t seem any different lately.  He didn’t appear to be unhappy.  He was a little withdrawn, a little quiet, but he’d been that way for as long as she’d known him.  I don’t think her shock has fully worn off yet.”
“Has yours?”
“I’ve spoken barely a dozen words to Allen in the last six months.  Things changed between us after the fire at Briarwood Towers.  I don’t think he ever got over it.  Hell, how are you supposed to get over something like that?”
Allen had gotten within eight feet of the three children trapped in the blaze, within a few seconds of rescuing them from the merciless blaze, when a beam suddenly gave way and a large portion of the ceiling came crashing down upon them before his disbelieving eyes.  Shortly afterwards, he announced his resignation from the fire department.  Austin’s last extensive conversation with him had taken place when he dropped by to talk his brother out of the hasty decision.
“Why don’t you just take a long vacation, take some time to get your head together.  You’re great at your job, Allen.  The rest of us all look up to you.  You’re a real live hero, man, and there’s far too few of those.  You did everything you could to save those kids.  There just wasn’t enough time to get to them.  You more than anyone knows the nature of the work we do.  Sometimes the fire gets too big of a head start.  Sometimes the fire wins.”
“Don’t lecture me with my own words, little brother.  I know what I’m doing.  I know why I need to do it.  I’m no hero.  I’ve done nothing to warrant being anybody’s role model.”  Allen then lifted the bottle of vodka he was holding up to his mouth, taking a long swig.  
“I thought you didn’t drink anymore.  Didn’t you learn your lesson after drinking yourself out of college?”
“Never you mind what I learned,” Allen spewed.  “That’s your damn problem.  Always minding what I do, imitating what I’ve experienced instead of looking for your own way to live.”
“I’d almost forgotten how stupid alcohol makes you.  First comes the self-pity, then the lashing out at people who love you and have your best interests at heart.”
“Let’s not change the subject.  We were talking about you.  About how you’ve spent your whole life snacking off of my leftovers.  You had good grades in school.  You could have gone to college, become whatever it is you wanted to be.  But instead you followed me into the fire department, just as you’ve always followed behind me.  You’ve never made your own choices.  You’ve never even bothered to search for your own way.  You just hitched onto the tail end of mine.”
“If that’s how you feel, that’s how you feel,” Austin said, hearing the quaver of hurt in his voice, unable to control it.  “How come you never told me you felt this way about me before?  You might have spoken your mind about it a lot sooner.” 
“Why?  To make you stop following me like a puppy dog?  Sure, I could have swatted you on the nose and sent you scurrying away.  But I didn’t want to embarrass you and make you feel like shit.  I kept waiting for you to outgrow it, to finally step out of my shadow and become your own person.  I figured that had to happen eventually.  But it didn’t.  You’ve been content being the poor man’s version of me.”
“Fuck you, Allen.  I came here to give you my support.  I came because you’re my brother.  I love you, and I don’t want you to screw up your life.  The bottle has always made you an asshole.  Don’t put yourself through that hell again.  Don’t put your family through it again.  What happened in that building was a terrible thing.  That fire claimed three innocent lives.  Don’t let it destroy yours as well.  Putting that bottle to your mouth is no different that putting a gun barrel to you head.  It’s only a little slower.”
“Before you start acting holier than thou, make sure you have your facts straight,” Allen said.  “I didn’t start drinking again because of those kids dying.  If you must know, I started back drinking more than a month ago.”
“I was drinking the night before the fire.  And I drank earlier that morning too.  I wasn’t completely sober when I was trying to get to those kids.  I was doing my job as well as I could do it under the circumstances, and maybe they would have died on me no matter what.  But there’s no way for me to know for sure.  What I do know is that I won’t ever be able to put on my uniform again without the question coming to mind.  So I won’t be putting it on any more.  I want that chapter of my life behind me for good.  You can have my share of the superhero business.”
“I think you’re being a fool,” Austin said, for he was too stunned to say much of anything else.
“You going to judge me, little brother?  Well if you are, at least have the courtesy to judge yourself first.  Figure out why you’ve spent your life copycatting me.  Figure out just what you’re so insecure about.  Why is it that you can’t take a road unless it already has my footprints on it?  Hell, you even married one of my castoffs.”
The punch that Austin threw with perfect form landed flush on his brother’s jaw, knocking him to the floor.  Allen looked up in a daze as the liquor bottle by his side emptied its contents and Austin walked out of the apartment.
Austin never revealed in full to Evelyn the specifics of the argument.  It was the closest thing to a secret that he had kept from her since the days of not revealing his desire while she was dating his brother.  One week later Allen apologized for his behavior, laying the blame on drunkenness and bad timing.  True to his word, he did not return to work.  From that point on he made his presence increasingly scarce, as if hoping that absence would make the heart grow amnesia.  Austin was convinced that he continued to drink, but had no idea what if anything could be done about it.
Six months passed quietly by.  Then one day Austin received a phone call from his father.  His obviously distraught mother could be heard in the background.  A woman named Mandy had just contacted them.  She said that Allen had been living with her.  She said that earlier that day she had gone out for half an hour to do some shopping.  In the time that she was gone, Allen stepped into a closet with a loaded pistol and shot himself in the head.
A few days later, Austin found himself staring at a photograph in his old bedroom.  It depicted two boys whose lives were ahead of them, siblings often likened to peas in a pod, the younger idolizing the elder.  For as far back as he could remember, Austin had wanted to be just like his big brother.  He emulated Allen’s actions, mimicked his choices.  Allen served as a dependable roadmap, showing a shy child how to be a brave boy, an easily intimidated youth how to become a courageous man.  Yet that map had led to this strange and awful place, so far away from the aura of optimism exuded from Allen’s eyes in the childhood snapshot.
Physically, there was no mistaking Austin and Allen for anything but brothers.  They shared the penetrating eyes of their father, the full lips of their mother, and possessed identical sets of dimples.  But when Austin compared the photo of he and Allen as boys to the one of them as men, he saw that their resemblance to one another was stronger in youth.  This he attributed to a small change in Allen’s features that had not yet occurred at the time of the earlier picture.  The small scar just off to the side of his left eye had been earned when he was fifteen years old.  On that long past but most memorable night, Austin made the regrettable mistake of succumbing to curiosity and examining their father’s prized collection of baseball memorabilia.  He had been told time and time again that the items were for display purposes only, but examining the mythical objects of sports lore up close seemed harmless enough, a victimless act of rebellion. 
Less than fifteen minutes after their father arrived home that evening, he summoned his sons to the study.  In his hand was the top half of a uniform autographed by the great Lou Brock.  The jelly stain unknowingly left behind on the collar stood out blatantly to the boys as they stepped timidly forward.
“Which one of you did this?”
Austin took a moment to catch his breath.  He had been a witness to his father’s hairpin trigger temper often enough to have a fair idea what was in store for him.  The stutter that he was still years away from overcoming was always at its worst in the unforgiving presence of his father.
“It was me, Dad.”
For a second Austin thought that he had managed to speak without opening his mouth or willing the words to be uttered.  But in the next second he grasped that it was actually Allen who had confessed, even though he was guiltless.      
“Boy, how many times have I told you that these are not toys?”
“Many times.”
The backhanded slap that followed rivaled the swiftness of a cobra’s strike.  It knocked Allen to the floor, and because of the ring on their father’s finger, it inadvertently drew blood.
“Then you should know better, shouldn’t you?”
“Yes sir,” Allen answered.
His lesson taught, their father walked out of the room, dropping a handkerchief on the floor as parting gift.  Austin retrieved it and handed it to his brother, who dabbed at the fresh wound that would mark him for life.
“Thanks,” Austin said.
“Don’t sweat it.  That’s what big brothers are for.”
As grateful as he was for Allen’s playing the part of sacrificial lamb, Austin did not fully understand why his brother had volunteered for undeserved punishment.  Now these many years later, he could not fathom the pain his brother must have been in over the past several months, perhaps much longer.  Nor could he make sense of Allen’s decision to take his own life rather than waiting for better days to come.  Then again, his brother had never been particularly patient.
Tears began to fall onto the picture frame in Austin’s hand.  His father and brother always said that tears were a sign of weakness.  But what did either of them know?  One had no idea how to be a father.  The other quit on things when they got too tough.  These had been Austin’s shining examples of manhood. 
Austin let his tears flow, because crying at least gave him temporary respite from trying to figure out what had gone so tragically wrong.  He had grown uncertain of all things, except for the leaden realization that there would be no more footsteps for him to follow throughout life.  Only open road.

Just because...

Book Review

Water for ElephantsWater for Elephants by Sara Gruen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was vaguely aware that a movie adaptation has been made of this novel when picking it up to read. I have yet to see the movie, but in general when I see that a book has been made into a movie, I figure the book must be pretty good. This way of thinking can prove to be false of course. At most it's probably a solid indicator that the book sold well. We know that plenty of lousy movies have been adapted from far superior books, and perhaps less frequently but it does happen, a pretty good movie sometimes can be the result of adaptation from a so-so book. In the case of Water for Elephants since I haven't seen the movie, I can't speak as to which version I enjoyed best. I can only speak to the novel which I thought was mediocre. It's the story of a man in his nineties living in a nursing home who thinks back on his days spent working as a veterinarian in a traveling circus. The setting jumps back and forth from Jacob being a young man on a train with a bunch of circus folk to being an old man dealing with the erosion of his body and mind. Most of the book is dedicated to his circus days and how he ends up with the woman who would become his wife and mother of his children. These sections are where most of the action takes place. In the present it doesn't get more dramatic than Jacob being cranky about nursing home life, him becoming disoriented sometimes, and family members forgetting to visit him on the one day when a circus happens to be nearby. Yet I found the writing to be more engaging in quiet scenes set in the present where nothing much took place than the portions dealing with circus life. Plenty of elements are in place for intriguing storytelling. We have a circus owner with a complex over not being the Ringling Brothers Circus who is willing to cut losses of human lives if that's what it takes to keep the show going on. There is the paranoid schizophrenic boss who switches from charming to psychotic on a dime. His beautiful headline act wife whom Jacob can not stop thinking about. Also aboard the train are performers, some more freakish than others, and animals, some more dangerous than others, that are in Jacob's care. The scenes taking place during Jacob's youth felt rushed to me. It was as if the author wanted to include as many eventful happenings during this period as could be crammed in, but she dwells on none of them for long because it's already time to move on to the next one. Everybody seemed to be a character sketch of a personality type rather than a fully fleshed out human being. The lone exception is Jacob, but only because the book focuses on him in his senior years along with his adventurous youthful days, giving us a little more time to learn what makes him tick. Water for Elephants is an easy read that covers some interesting territory, but it fell well short of being the greatest show on earth. I wouldn't be surprised if I enjoy the movie more than the book if I ever get around to watching it. I've rounded up from 2-1/2 to 3 stars because I like the title of this book and that's as good a reason as any.

View all my reviews

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