Monday, September 24, 2012


…This is a piece I wrote three years ago that was published in Left Hand Waving.  It’s essentially all true.


One of my brothers went to Viet Nam, the other to prison.

My brother mailed sample rations across the country, or at least that’s what we were told.  We had them for dinner one night, each of us kids taking a portion.  It was pasty and dry, like mayonnaise-coated cardboard.  I did my best not to gag.  “See, how’d you like to live on this?” Mother asked.

            Because I’d seen it on the news, I knew soldiers died but I did not believe my brother could be killed.  When I pictured him over there I saw him lying on the ground, a sand bag for a pillow, helmet tipped for shade, smoking a cigarette and ordering privates and sergeants around.  When I saw an actual photograph of him, he was holding a gigantic bullet in both hands, the same way you’d hold a King salmon.  Behind him was a pyramid of identical shells, tall as a person.  In ink at the bottom of the photo it said: D.M.Z. Nam, 1970.

            When he returned he was sullen and odd.  My father told me not to ask any questions.  “It’s not easy being a man,” he said, and in bed that night and most nights that have followed, I wondered about such a statement.

            We met my other brother at the bus station upon his release from prison.  While we were waiting, I got the word terminal stuck in my head because of the greyhound logo on the outside of the building. 

I’d known him when I was a baby, but now I was nine, so it took my sister’s cackling to point him out.

            His hands were huge, thick and leathery.  He tousled my hair and squeezed the back of my neck too hard.  When I said, “Ouch,” he slapped me on the head and called me, “Pussy” and my dad chuckled.


            We were pouring cement for the foundation of a new garage.  Ours had burned down.  Arson, the inspectors said. 

            My brothers and I were father’s helpers.  My brothers actually knew what they were doing.  Me, I sat in the dirt, drawing shapes with a broken tree limb.  When my father asked for a tool or for a board to be held while he sawed, I assisted.

            For just an instant, I found myself alone with him.  My stomach juices sluiced, reminding me—as if I needed proof--that I wasn’t brave.  Still Dad and I were by ourselves, so I spat the words out the way you would if you’d just bitten into something spoiled or still alive.

            He stopped what he was doing and gawked.  The sun was out, a boiling hoop.  Grime rimmed my father’s eye sockets.  “Stop your fucking dreaming,” he told me.

            That was thirty years ago.  My brothers live in other places now.  Sometimes I call.  My father lives with a new wife.  Mine tells me to forget.  She says there’s still time to be a writer if I want.


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