A Normal Brother
My brother Aaron ate dog food to prove he could do it. He slipped into the pantry and dipped his stubby hand into Buddy’s 30-pound bag of Alpo, grabbed a handful and popped it in his mouth like caramel corn. He crunched and swallowed and smiled real slow. Brown bits peppered the corners of his mouth. “Yum, yum,” he said in a gummed up voice, wiping his hands on his jeans.
It was so disgusting. Why couldn’t I have a normal brother like other kids in the neighborhood? I wanted the kind of brother who played baseball, rode bikes or fished for bluegills. No, I was stuck with Aaron.
“I’m taking you to the carnival tonight--without Aaron,” Mom said. We sat in the kitchen, the morning sun streamed through the window, warming my hands. A quiet break before the monster rose from his crypt.
“Good. That brat can bug the babysitter for a change,” I said.
“Katie, don’t start.” Mom lit a cigarette with her lucky lighter from the Driftwood Inn. Her hand trembled as she took a long, slow drag, a morning ritual. She stepped over to the sink and gazed out the window. Her blond hair hung flat around her shoulders like a wrung out mop. Pink slippers, matted and stained, nestled her small feet. Her eyes—tired. People thought we looked alike with the same slim build, delicate nose and cheekbones. I saw it at times, but not this morning.
Ever since my parents divorced over a year ago, Mom had struggled to make it up to us. Last week, she had taken Aaron and I apple picking at Wauconda Orchards. She called in sick to her job at the Pancake House and made up an excuse about stomach problems. The boss questioned her about the symptoms, but he let her off the hook. I told her we needed the money and suggested she call him back. But she didn’t listen and said the fall picking season was short.
The branches, loaded with shiny reds and greens, dipped to the ground, as if to welcome our arrival, well, maybe not Aaron’s arrival. Wearing his wrinkled Cubs cap--which he refused to remove, even slept with it on--Aaron sprinted down the rows of trees, weaving in and out. I swore the kid ran non-stop the whole time and grabbed at every unsuspecting apple he could get his hands on.
“Let him run. He needs to get it out,” Mom said.
“He’s embarrassing,” I told her. “Don’t they have leashes for 8-year olds?” I tried to keep an open mind, as the big sister and all, but sometimes I wanted to strangle him.
Our yellow, smiley face clock ticked above the sink. Mom continued to sip her coffee from a mug printed with “The World’s Greatest Mom,” a Christmas present from my dad, the year before their divorce.
“What time are we going to the carnival?” I wanted to know.
“After I get home from work, but I need you to do me a favor in the meantime.”
“You’ve got to watch Aaron this afternoon.”
“No.” I pounded my fist on the table.
“He’s your brother, Katie.” I slammed the chair against the wall and crossed my arms. In the old days, this tactic would have worked, but she ignored me, like I knew she would. I took a few deep breaths and joined her at the window. A blue jay landed with a splash in the birdbath. Wings beat the water to a bluish-gray blend. The jay hopped to the rim, tweaked his beak over his feathers and flew off.
“So, what do you say?” She put her arm around my shoulder.
“He acts up, he’s dead meat,” I said and pulled away.
“He’ll be fine.” She tried to tap her cigarette over the sink, but missed. The ash floated towards the floor, sprinkling her slipper like gray confetti. She shrugged and returned to her watch at the window, waiting for the next bird.
The park. A perfect setting for the wild one—not too many people, free of breakable objects and quiet voices not required. The early afternoon sun hid behind a mass of clouds. Yellow and orange trees dotted the landscape. He led the way, pulling my hand like a stubborn goat. His moist hand gripped hard. “Take it easy. Slow down,” I said. He didn’t listen, knowing that paradise was close.
“I want to swing,” he said, pointing to the playground area. His hair stuck out in clumps under his blue cap. I let him go and the boy torpedo ran for the nearest seat, ready for action. “Push me.”
“All right,” I said when I got close. I grasped the seat and pulled back, hoping to gain some momentum. He tightened his grip on the chains. I released and he sailed, body relaxed and laughing with delight. “Higher,” he shouted. I pumped the seat with all my strength and his feet kicked in slow motion as he swung back and forth. A crow soared overhead, cawing, and the smell of burning leaves drifted in our direction.
After a long time of pushing, I paused and stood off to the side, waiting for the boy pendulum to wind down. I stretched my arms, heavy and sore, and waited. And waited. All right, I told myself, he’d swung enough. I wanted to cut our visit short and leave. I’d done my duty.
“Come on, that’s it. We’re done,” I said.
“No,” he said, still swinging.
I stepped closer and grabbed the Cubs cap from his head. No person had ever braved the unthinkable— removing the cap—until now. But the brat pushed me to my limit.
“Nooooooooo.” He shook his head. “Noooooooooo.” Great. Nothing ever went as planned with my brother. I couldn’t believe I agreed to this—how could I have been so stupid?
I moved away from the swings and sat on the ground, wrapping my arms around my bent knees. A freight train blasted its horn in the distance, in synch with my screaming locomotive. Wet grass seeped through my jeans, but I didn’t care. There was no point in trying anymore since Dad left. Aaron was simply out of control. My mother had him tested and analyzed by social workers, doctors and counselors. The answer always came back the same—he’s normal. Yeah, right.
I rested my head against my knees, breaking my body down like a folding chair. I wanted to escape into another time and place. It’s Saturday, and I’m free. Living in a big house. My brother? He plays baseball and hangs with friends. Dad—he comes home after work. Watches all my soccer games. Doesn’t need a six-pack to calm his nerves. Doesn’t meet a woman named Tiffany. Oh, screw it—there was no point.
My eyes moistened and I cried silently, thinking of nothing and everything. A jet roared above, drowning out my brother’s voice. I smelled sweet, rotting apples, fallen and fermenting by a nearby tree. Why me?
In all my misery, I didn’t notice it at first: a light pressure on my back between my shoulder blades. Was I wrong? No, I felt it, more pressure now, moving up and down, sliding over my sweatshirt. I heard the whir of highway traffic, but otherwise all was calm and quiet. The shrieks—gone. The tantrum—over. I raised my head, tentative, expecting—I don’t know what.
Small arms encircled my slumping shoulders. He squeezed as best he could. I wiped away the tears with my sleeve and turned around. A red-faced boy with matted hair stared back at me. “It’s okay. It’s okay, Katie.”
I rose from the ground and brushed the leaves from my pants. The cap, crumpled and dirty, lay a few feet away. I walked over, picked it up and put it on his head. “Let’s go.” I held out my hand and he gave me his.