Two Stories

Fixing a Hole

     Jacob picks you up at 30th Street Station and asks if you want to go home before the service. You tell him, No.  You can’t imagine seeing your mother right now. Jacob considers this for a moment and when he speaks again it’s only to tell you that you look like shit. He says, Your hairline is disgusting. Normally you’d offer a cutting response, but you don’t have the energy and you can’t really think about anything except the last time you saw Adam, your only brother, the one you’ve come home to bury.

     He’d driven all the way from Philly to Boston to see you. He said he wanted to wipe the slate clean. You obliged, and then you both got drunk and kicked the heads off all the snowmen in Union Park. You laughed like maniacs and pissed your names into the snow. It had taken almost a decade, but finally you and your brother were acting like friends.

     He left the next morning and you traded voicemails for a while, a series of hesitant mumblings between two brothers who had nothing in common save the shared memory of a family — an actual family — before it became shattered by the loss of its patriarch, a deeply depressed but sometimes magical alcoholic who, on his 40th birthday, surprised everyone by wrapping his lips around the barrel of a gun and blowing his brains all over the kitchen’s brand new granite backsplash. And that was the problem with you and Adam: He loved his brother; you loved the memory.

     Since you don’t want to go home, Jacob takes you back to his condo and insists on shaving the hair off the back of your neck. He says, I feel bad about myself when I look at you. You’re not offended. This is Jacob’s way of being a friend. He runs a hot towel across your neck and trims your hairline without saying anything. The only sounds are the sounds of the razor scraping against your skin, of Jacob breathing heavy through his nostrils. When he’s finished, he holds up a small mirror so you can see the improvement. And he’s right, you look much better.

     Before the service, Jacob takes you out for dinner at some Chinese restaurant, as if a bowl of noodles and a fortune cookie will somehow make you feel any better. Aside from a few exchanges with the waiter, neither of you says much. Adam is dead. There’s nothing to say. 

     You look out the window and there’s a middle-aged couple on the corner kissing and running their hands all over each other’s bodies. The two of them linger there for a while and even though they’re old and mostly pathetic looking, you can’t help but to feel jealous of the connection they’ve made. More than anything, you want to feel close to someone, to bridge the invisible distance between bodies with something more sustainable than an ad hoc collection of clumsy one night stands. But you also know that intimacy is awkward, and you’re not about to subject yourself to anything so disconcerting as being responsible for anyone else’s feelings. Jacob taps his chopsticks on the table and when he finally has your attention he nods to the couple in the street and says, Flightless birds always die. You’re not exactly sure what he means by this, but you nod in agreement because you couldn’t care less about his explanation. 

     When you get to the church there’s a long line and it takes forever to get inside. Jacob assures you that you can cut to the front, but you’re not looking for any special treatment. In fact, you’d prefer to go unnoticed, so you shuffle in slowly with your head down, avoiding all the glares and whispers, and when you finally get inside the man in front of you kneels and crosses himself. It seems appropriate, so you drop to one knee and do the same. Jacob pulls you up by your collar and asks, Who are you kidding?

     The service is strange, mostly because the pall-bearers and eulogists are friends; they’re not blood like you. These are the brothers Adam chose because he couldn’t have you. And, not that it matters, you find yourself nodding in approval of these surrogate siblings, these young, red-faced men who had obviously loved your brother so much better than you. You’re glad that he had these people in his life, even if their combined affection wasn’t powerful enough to prevent him from following your father’s example and ending his life on his own terms, telling the rest of the world to just go ahead and fuck itself.

     You see your mother in the front pew and you kind of want to go and be with her, maybe even hold her hand, but you’ve never been close and you know that any attempts at offering comfort would only leave you both feeling an even greater sense of loss. Strangely, you think, Adam would know what to do in this situation. But it’s just you and Mom now, and you can’t seem to do anything except sit doe-eyed and motionless like some clay-souled dunce.

     The service makes you miserable with feelings you’re not accustomed to, and just before the second eulogy you ask Jacob if you can take the car. You tell him, I want to be alone. He tells you that you’re acting like an asshole, and he’s right, but he doesn’t argue beyond that. He just hands you his keys and says he’ll get a ride with someone else.          

     Your drive aimlessly around the old neighborhood, and at a stoplight you root through Jacob’s CDs until you come across something worth listening to: Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Adam’s favorite album. Or at least it had been his favorite album in middle-school, back in the days when you two would smoke joints in the bomb shelter and take turns punching each other in the jaw for fun. You play the beginning to “A Day In The Life” about a hundred times, singing along even though you don’t know any of the lyrics. You can barely see the road through your tears, and you’re thinking, This is so unlike me. If you were going to break down, you should have done it at the service. At least there it would have meant something. You pull over to the side of the road and wait for the feeling to pass, but it doesn’t.

     Nothing better to do and nowhere else to go, you head back to your mom’s house. You’re not ready for sleep, so you go outside to the pool, but the pool’s been drained and there’s all these leaves stuck to the bottom. You light a cigarette and plop down on the ledge, dangling your feet where the water should be. When you were young, your father would spend entire afternoons supine in a floating chair, daring you and Adam to try and tip him. Occasionally he’d toss quarters into the deep end, the coins blinking back sunlight as you raced against Adam for the smallest of prizes. You were the older brother. You always won.

     It’s well after midnight when you finally go inside, but for some reason your mom is still awake. She’s standing in the kitchen eating cereal, watching a Lifetime movie with the sound off. You ask her if she’s okay and she doesn’t say anything. She just points at the television. You look at the screen and it’s an actress you recognize but can’t name. The actress is throwing stones into a lake. Again, you ask your mom if she’s okay. And again, she says nothing.

Une histoire d’amour confus par la langue 

     Yves-Marcel was a dark-eyed, stubble-faced Frenchman who learned to speak English while working on a chicken farm in southern Maryland.  He started out hanging birds on hooks for the scalding tanks, but, after proving himself a diligent and reliable worker, he eventually worked his way up the conveyor belt to “Packaging Assistant”, a role which required him to wrap the headless chickens in plastic to make for the pretty presentation at the grocery.  He hated the job and decided to quit after his co-workers invited him to the 4th Annual Decapitation Derby, an event where each man snapped off his chicken head and gambled monies on which bird body went running the further.  When he refused to participate, the Maryland chicken farmers mocked him, saying a real Frenchman would have guillotined his chicken with pride. Yves-Marcel told them, Many thank you and good lucks with your health.

     Yves-Marcel had a friend, Marisol, studying medicine at Temple University, so he went to stay with her in Philadelphia. Marisol made intimacies with many athletes and she got Yves-Marcel a job working as a maintenance man on boathouse row. He scrubbed the docks, hosed down the boats, and, on Fridays, mopped the shower stalls. Sometimes the crew from UPENN would let him take out one of their old boats and he would row up the Schuylkill River to Manayunk, where he would sit beneath Three Angels Bridge and practice the imagination in English. He enjoyed his time alone on the water, but ultimately he felt like a lost leaf floating along the current to nowhere. He was, he admitted, suffering the depressions.  

      Winter came and the boathouses closed and Yves-Marcel headed north to New York City. His brother lived there, and even though they hadn’t talked in years, Yves-Marcel knew that brothers love each other like magnets and metals. And he was right. His brother, Matthieu, took him in and let him sleep on the floor of his studio apartment in Harlem. Matthieu had a low-level job at a publishing company, but he was very proud and could speak English as smooth as baby bottoms. Matthieu introduced Yves-Marcel to a man called Rob Robinson, and Rob Robinson paid Yves-Marcel to walk his dogs (both Beagles) through Central Park twice a day. It was on one of these walks that Yves-Marcel saw a pale redheaded girl that sung musicals to (his) soul. Her name was Waverly.

      Waverly was from London, but she spoke fluent Italian and lived in New York where she worked as a tour guide at MoMA. She asked Yves-Marcel if he could dream in English, because that’s when she knew she was fluent in Italian. She said, “In my sleep, the language spoke to me and told me I could have it.” Yves-Marcel asked his brother about this, but Matthieu laughed and said dreaming in English would be the most horrible of nightmares.

      Yves-Marcel kept walking dogs for a year, and during that year he courted Waverly. They had simple dates.  One winter night, they ate Ramen noodles and slow danced to Henry Mancini’s “Moonriver” in Waverly’s small kitchen. Then on another night, they took turns trading back rubs and watched Pan’s Labyrinth (Spanish with English subtitles). And on Sundays they had a habit of eating waffles in bed and watching “I Love the 80’s” on VH1. For the most part, though, they spent all their time together lip-locked in blissful affection. They were completely and totally ripe with lustings.

      It wasn’t long before Waverly asked Yves-Marcel if he ever planned to make her his bride. He said he wasn’t ready. He knew he loved Waverly, but still there was issues around the communicating. This caused Waverly much distress and she broke down in tears. He tried to explain himself, but he couldn’t find the words. It was so frustrating that he gave up arguing and did the push-ups until (his) face was covered by sweat.  Waverly understood the push-ups for what they were, and she told him not to worry. She told him she would wait.

      And of course that night it happened. Yves-Marcel dreamt of an orchestra whose instruments only played words, not music, and all the words were in English. It was a symphony of vowels and consonants that commenced adagio —  a whisper of phrases, a collection of secrets — and reached crescendo with what seemed to be a million Americans all shouting Waverly’s name in unison. Finally, the language had spoken to him, and it said that he could have her.   

Mike Ramsburg is a graduate of Williams College and received his MFA from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago. His fiction has appeared both online and offline, and he is currently finishing up his first novel, Closer To Where We Are. He lives in London with his wife.

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