William Kevin Burke writes in Portland Oregon. This story owes a great debt to his teacher Karen Karbo, whose great gift is improving craft while giving her students permission to sound like themselves.
Arnold Keffler was a tax lawyer. He spent his days hiding profits and enhancing deductions. It was not glamorous or exciting, though sometimes his actions veered close to the criminal. For the last month he had been spending time with film people. He planned to talk about it at dinner. The film people wanted money to get their project to a festival. They were letting him pretend he was part of it all, the dreaming, the ideas hurtling back and forth, the moments of creation when the cameras rolled and every smile, gesture, grimace or word was more now because it was film now. When Arnold parked his car on his brother’s new street the sky held the last gasp of sunset, a soft golden light gilded everything he saw. Arnold liked knowing that this time was called the magic hour. Filmmakers would wait weeks for the lights and clouds to work together so they could film for a few minutes like this. Tree branches, a cinderblock wall and the windshields of the parked cars all shimmered with yellow, orange and red tones. The red glowed in the lights on top of a parked police car until Arnold had to blink to see that that car was empty, parked there on some mission. As he walked to the apartment house door he checked the fold of the collar of his black silk shirt. He had a bottle of red wine, not the cheapest, tucked under his arm. A proper dinner guest, he congratulated himself. He was just the fellow for this moment. Two, or was it three? Martinis burned in his veins. This trip, twenty minutes across town to bridge four years of silence, had taken some preparation. He was prepared. He was so prepared he had to measure carefully when placing his feet on the steps into the building. The street door’s latch had been taped open with duct tape, but the lobby was quiet. No hurried angry voices floated down the stairs to the lobby. He heard no murmurs of fights from behind the closed apartment doors. The lobby elevator was broken. So yes, this was the kind of place that Gerald would live. Arnold jaunted up two flights of stairs and stopped in front of apartment number 23. He raised his hand to knock, but paused, his knuckles waited at the brink of the next arc of his relationship with Gerald. Twins know each other too well. Arnold had written that to open a psych essay twenty years ago. He still thought it, at least once a day. Last chance to bail out. The last time Arnold saw Gerald thick plexiglass kept them from touching. Gerald said it was all Arnold’s fault. He wanted Gerald to fail so he could at last claim first place. Arnold said never mind. Just rot in your own doing. He went away and stayed away for four years, until last week an email from Gerald showed up. Reunion it said. Then an address, this one, and a time. Now. This very second. The time on his phone slipped to 6:37. Just the time specified in the email. That was Gerald, pointless precision. Arnold’s right fist tapped lightly on the door. A tall red haired woman holding a grey tabby cat opened the apartment door. She was what Arnold had expected. The kind of stunner who does not have to work at it, wearing a small bronze medallion set against the rust tones of her blouse and jacket, all of it working to set off her hair. Her thin nose was a tad long; the imperfection highlighted her cheekbones and the curves of her neck. Her clear blue eyes and steady jaw betrayed the patience of the truly intelligent. How did Gerald do it? A life of stumbles punctuated now and again by full on Luciferian falls and yet Gerald always got the real ones. The women Arnold was able to meet were all hidden behind frightening tans and jewelry designed to distract you with thoughts of its expense. “Welcome. I am Rita.” The woman tucked the cat into the crook of her arm so she could slide a hand to meet his. Arnold felt at a loss for words. His hands stayed at his sides. “And you are Arnold.” “Indeed I am.” He shook her hand. It was warm. He held on, felt the soft surge of energetic connection. “Nice to meet you.” She pulled her hand free. “Is this your place?” “As long as I send them their money.” Across the room a window that had been squeezed between two bookshelves looked out on the tops of trees, the roofs of houses and the hills across the river. The tree tops were deep red, the end of the day light bleeding away into the purple of the distant hills. “It’s a nice place,” Arnold said, that being what you say about an ordinary apartment with a used couch of some sort of tweed-like material, an abstract painting over the couch that featured globs of green hovered over by clouds of yellow, a couple old bookshelves so stuffed with books that they had to be piled sideways on top of the neat rows and now from across the room Arnold’s twin brother Gerald coming at him with his hand out to for a shake. Gerald still limped. He had gained weight and grown his hair long during the time they were lost to each other. Meanwhile, Arnold had lost fifteen pounds running marathons and had his hair trimmed every other Thursday. Still, when they shook hands it felt to Arnold like meeting himself. A version of himself. All their lives the twins had sorted their possibilities into congruent patterns. The rogue wandered because that felt like the most solid truth and the conformist yearned for something he could never understand or even name and hoped that his yearning meant at least a part of him was free. Arnold realized that was on old thought. An observation from that college psych paper. Meeting My Self. “A solid B, it might have been brilliant if it had been in any way a discussion of the assigned topic,” the professor had written at the top in red pencil. So many things had stayed with Arnold. Not his brother though. He had lost his brother and he had missed him. When he had ordered that third martini he had vowed, solemn as a parish priest turning from the devil’s temptations, not to show how much he missed Gerald. “Glad you could come,” Gerald said. “Hey,” Arnold said. Gerald was five minutes older than Arnold and had always assumed the mantle of elder brother. “You just hang around me hoping that the girls might talk you. You are an appendage.” Those were Gerald’s words, pronounced to a room of their friends at the climax of an epic drunken night when they were college freshmen. Both of them had been shy and lost, but Gerald was an academic rising star and Arnold was just another about to be poly-sci major looking to find a career in law or politics or both. Back then Arnold’s greatest fear had been that his facility with math would determine the course of his adult life. That fear had come true, mostly. But now the film people had come into his life. On that long ago night their friends had all concluded that Gerald was cruel, but truthful. Arnold would always be the guy who came along with Gerald. “Here,” Arnold said, holding up the bottle of wine. “That looks nice,” Rita said. “It might not peel the paint off the walls.” Arnold handed her the bottle. The wine was called Randy Scallywag Pinot Noir. The red label showed a black silhouette of a man with goat horns peeking around the trunk of a tree. “Sweet. I’ll open it with dinner. You two get reacquainted while I take care of the last bits.” Just like that Arnold knew this reunion was Rita’s idea. Probably part of Gerald’s endless healing process. “You know wine?” Arnold said, but Rita had already stepped into the kitchen, turning her hips so she could get to her chopping and leaving him facing his brother. “Let’s sit down,” Gerald said. “I get dizzy.” “Are you on new meds?” “Always. They try and they try. Some days I am sure I have a brain tumor. But maybe it is just an imbalance of the humors. I’m fated to always look for what is wrong. I was injected with too much melancholy. Our mother…” “Did her damn best.” And there she was, between them the way she would always be between them. “Don’t try so hard. You’re not your brother.” She would say to Arnold and he would let that mean everything. What did she say to Gerald? Nothing. She would go on for an hour to Arnold about Gerald’s brilliant future and then to Gerald say nothing at all. She was starving him into greatness. Just like she starved their father into a drunken shadow of himself. During college days when Gerald had a few he would wind on and on to Arnold about how their mother, Jeanne he called her, seeking some power by using her first name, about how Jeanne would never give him one moment’s rest, one moment’s approval. Yet when Arnold called home Jeanne would go on and on and on some more to Arnold about the wizardry and genius of Gerald. How does he do it? How is it that the two of you are so different? Your mind so practical, she said it like a curse, and his so mysterious. The wonder in her voice was like an iron claw ripping out Arnold’s heart and holding it up for the assembled multitude to see. Behold my ordinary son, I offer him to average life so his brother might flourish! Of course she said nothing of the sort. Not really. It was all tone of voice. And Arnold succeeded, making good money and only occasionally drinking just a bit more than necessary for good companionship. Gerald remained at the center of the drama, but by any scorecard Arnold was the winner. Arnold felt the thought hover at the base of his tongue. He would not speak that truth. Not tonight. “She did her best,” Arnold repeated himself. “As do we all.” Gerald lifted a glass of wine he had kept discretely tucked into the book shelf. He took a sip and held it out to Arnold. “Would you like one?” “Should you?” Arnold asked, eyeing his brother’s wine glass. “Not for perfect compliance. But I granted myself an indulgence for the evening. The great event.” “I saw a police car out front.” “Really.” “It was parked. Empty.” “They haven’t been here yet.” “I didn’t mean.” “Yes you did. But you are forgiven.” He clasped a friendly hand on Arnold’s shoulder, fingers digging into his brother’s neck just a bit too hard, like a frightening uncle taking liberties. “Rita. A glass of the best for my brother. Returned from his long journeying.” “He just drove over for dinner.” Came her voice from the kitchen. “It was a longer than that. It was a drive through time and custom.” Gerald said. “Get it yourself.” “Alas. I carry no authority.” Gerald went to the kitchen and returned with a carefully filled glass and an open bottle of a supermarket merlot. “To our reunion,” Gerald said and held his glass out for a touch. “Are you working?” Arnold asked, cutting to the chase the way he did when he had nothing to say. He felt a sheen of sweat on his forehead, an ominous clenching in his bowels. Why had he come? Why had he stopped taking his Xanax? Alcohol always came back on him, like Gerald’s scorn. He was thinking too fast and too much. He swigged the chalky wine as if he could drink his way past its taste. “I sort packages in a big warehouse by the airport. I make sure they get into the correct bin on the correct cart so they can be delivered to the proper truck.” Gerald said. “Have you been there long?” “Almost four months.” “That’s terrific.” “It’s everything I ever dreamed about.” “Rita’s very lovely.” “She picked me up when we were sorting packages. She is an angel of the lowlands. Putting herself through college, rising above her upbringing to study English Literature. I am her fallen prince.” “Well she’s lovely. Damn hot.” “I can hear you two,” Rita called. “I am not an object for your amusement.” “Sorry,” Arnold called back. He turned to face his brother, took a proper sip of the merlot, managed not to choke and settled into a tale. “I’m getting into film. An independent production. I’m executive producer in charge of writing occasional checks. They let me hang around when they shoot. Once I got to stand in a certain spot while they got the lighting just right.” “Will I have a chance to see this epic?” “Maybe if you go to the prefestival screenings at the Boise Festival of the Arts.” “Mmhum.” Gerald let his response trickle into a vague hum. Arnold felt his brother’s gaze chill his spirit like a wind across a frozen lake. He thought about mentioning that while drinking with the director after a shoot he offered an idea about the lead character. It had seemed to Arnold that she loved life more than she loved any person, than she could love any person, and so she was doomed to loneliness in a world that could never live up to what she felt inside. The director wrote it in a notebook. Dialogue had shifted the next day to show how the heroine’s loneliness was at the heart of the story. In a profound and subtle way Arnold had contributed. How to say this. What was there to say? Nothing. Nada. He took another sip of the wine. Now it tasted of twigs with a whisper of something crude, perhaps an unfortunate mouse caught in the picking equipment. “Still practicing law?” Gerald asked, like they were twenty somethings who could change their life paths every six months. “It’s what I can do,” Arnold said. Through the door to the kitchen he saw a flash of Rita’s hair, then her legs as she pulled something out of the oven. “I like this brand. It’s drinkable for its price,” Arnold finished his glass in two swallows and poured another, the red wine going almost to the brim of the glass. He held the bottle out to his brother, but Gerald laid a hand over his glass. “I will be fine.” “I sincerely hope so,” Arnold raised his glass but did not wait for Gerald to respond before downing half the wine in one gulp. “Any chance you can get back into academics?” Arnold asked. Gerald winced and Arnold noticed the lines on his forehead that betrayed the babyish quality of his cheeks. Of course it was a cruel question. Gerald was forty four years old with seven commitments to mental hospitals and at least five arrests that Arnold knew about over the last twenty years. He had long ago crossed the line from interesting romantic to scary guy. Gerald’s main life skill was talking about the poetry of the romantic era. But not even Samuel Coleridge himself, if he was mysteriously transported through time and space to head the humanities department at a directional university, was going to hire Gerald to teach anything to anyone ever. Arnold castigated himself for asking. Back in the day Gerald’s star had risen until all that was left was finishing a thesis to become a real scholar. Then came the first breakdown. A woman had left him under particularly cruel circumstances and he started shouting in a seminar with seven other grad students and his thesis advisor. Gerald had tried to calm himself by drinking that night and ended up hospitalized after he marched into a faculty meeting the next morning and accused the chair of his department of ordering the implanting of devices in his brain that caused his thoughts to scatter when cars drove past his apartment. For years Gerald had insisted at the slightest provocation that that department’s one and only goal had been to prevent him from finishing his thesis and showing them all the mark of true genius. Arnold had been a new associate at a large law firm in those days. The calls to his office as Gerald plummeted from intervention to hospitalization had been quite embarrassing. “I made us chicken,” came Rita’s voice. “Gerald, can you set the table?” Set up the table was more accurate. They ate off a card table covered by red and blue and yellow paisley tapestry that Gerald let flutter down like a parachute. Arnold saw what looked like a spaghetti stain beside his plate. Rita had opened the wine Arnold brought and poured it around after they sat down. He took a thirsty sip, wished the better wine could wash away the memory, presence and very existence of the cheap stuff he had slugged down. He settled for erasing the taste. Settle back boy, Arnold thought when he noticed his simple taste had taken off half the glass. You ran thirteen miles this morning. Don’t overdo it. But even that thought had a fuzzy quality. He was already past the turn around and heading farther up an unknown path with every thought. “Home is where the heart breaks,” Arnold said, realizing he had said it out loud. Gerald smiled. Rita sipped her wine and sat the glass on the side of her plate closest to Arnold. In this apartment random insanity would not disrupt the flow of a nice dinner. “This wine is a nice change,” she said. “We tend to rely on the minimum.” Rita had cooked chicken thighs in lemon and soy sauce, mashed potatoes with cream cheese folded into them and carrots glazed with brown sugar and butter. They toasted the reunion of the brothers and Rita talked about her new job at the big bookstore downtown. “We have five branches, it’s really a regional chain, it’s how we survive. No, thrive. Internet sales.” She said this with the firm authority and boundless faith of the newly hired. Arnold smiled at her and lifted bites carefully, calmly and with what he calculated was the calculated rhythm of an average person at a nice dinner. “Rita has her own section. Napoleonic history. She keeps it stocked with books arguing over the outcome of the battle of Waterloo,” Gerald said. “I thought that one was settled. The French lost,” Arnold said. “It’s the how, not the what, that’s at issue. Arguing over what time the Prussians arrived and how Wellington influenced the narrative to hide their contribution in later years fuels quite a frolicsome academic industry,” Rita said. “History is a story, to be written and rewritten.” Gerald said. “There is no such thing as objective reality, only narratives composed of facts selected from an ever changing constellation of points of view. That is the elephant in the room of the discipline of history.” “It makes it fun. Keeps the wheel turning,” Arnold said. “History is a nightmare scholars are happy to rewrite,” Rita said. “Just argue,” Arnold said. “Excuse me?” Rita asked. “It’s a legal saying. If you have the facts argue the facts, if you don’t have the facts argue the law, if you don’t have the facts or the law just argue.” “I see.” “I’m agreeing with Gerald. The world we live in, the real world of our thoughts and feelings is not something that is just there, like the set of a play. It is constantly created by all of us bumping up against each other, trying to get what we want. ” Arnold felt her foot brush his under the table. He hoped it was not an accident. He was having that moment when his appreciation for the lines and curves of a woman’s face and figure add up to something greater than the parts, when they add up to the kind of desire that starts organizing his thoughts around itself. A woman like Rita would not be with Gerald long. He could just wait. Stage a meeting. Oh what a surprise! I just popped by to buy a new art book for my coffee table. Carravagio. It’s pricey but I just couldn’t help myself. It was so nice. And so nice to see you. Has it been that long since that dinner at your apartment? No, I have not heard from him. I’m due to be in touch. Maybe help him out. Would you like to go for coffee after your shift? “Did Gerald ever tell you about his time as a poet?” Arnold asked. “Not in any detail.” Gerald set down his fork and tried to stare his brother into shutting up. Arnold took another slug of his twenty five dollar a bottle wine, put down the glass and wiped his mouth with a cloth napkin. “He was quite the success. His poems were everywhere. You’d bump into them in the pages of magazines. Discussions ensued on websites. He was the man of the moment in the world of poetry. ‘Raw intensity and shimmering insight,’ said one review of his book. But then once more he decided his medications, the ones prescribed by his doctor, not the ones he bought who knows where from god knows who, were the problem. We were all conspiring to keep him from the great truth that had always been there, just beyond his glimpse. He was arrested without any pants outside a bar. They charged him with a sex crime because the complaining witness had her kids with her. No poet’s exemption for Whitmanesque enthusiasm. He nearly did real time in a real prison. That mess cost me seven thousand dollars.” “When so proudly you wept as my spirit fled to heaven,” Gerald recited. He looked at the two of them in turn, held his napkin to his mouth and touched it to his lips with a soft gesture like granting himself benediction. “That’s the last line of Iphigenia Comes Home in Time for Supper. My prize winner. My Citizen Kane,” Gerald said. “I know,” Rita and Arnold said at the same time. They touched their wine glasses and Arnold took a proper sip, let himself taste the wine this time. Raspberries. Chocolate. Hope. “Well then.” Rita said, reaching out and taking Gerald’s hand. “He always says he has a lot to thank you for.” “Could I have another helping of food?” Arnold asked. Gerald and Rita were gazing at each other, holding hands. As Arnold watched they moved their heads together, their lips touched in the guileless way of new lovers. They kept at it, held each other in an awkward embrace only made possible by the length and flexibility of Rita’s torso. “I’ll get it myself.” When Arnold returned from the kitchen with a plate heaped with twice as much food as he had intended to take, Rita and Gerald were sitting up straight watching him approach. “I see what you mean,” Rita said. She explained that Gerald had been saying Arnold was one of those people who make a religion of working out. Fighting time like a gladiator. “I need five thousand calories a day.” He sat down and set to work on the food. “I have something to show you,” Gerald said. He stood up, almost knocking over the chair when his left leg caught on it. The leg had been stiff since Gerald had decided stop signs did not matter and he ended up under the right front tire of a Chevy. Nobody was quite sure if it was one of his suicide attempts. That was the week after their mother died. It took a year and an eviction proceeding to get Gerald out of the house so it could be sold and the estate closed. “Gerald is so shy. I’m trying to work with him on that. He’s been looking forward to seeing you. To telling you what he’s been thinking.” Rita stretched her arms above her head and wriggled a bit in her seat. “Did you know that William Blake and his young wife used to take off all their clothes and romp in their garden pretending they were Adam and Eve?” Arnold asked. He really needed to eat this food. He needed to anchor himself with meat and potatoes. “Is that true?” Rita asked. “Maybe. I think I read it somewhere.” Gerald fussed at the bookshelf. Arnold thought he heard his brother cursing under his breath and his stomach clenched. He took a chicken thigh in his fingers and gave it an engulfing bite, scraping his teeth on the bone. Gerald’s muffled muttering was something he had learned to dread. It was the trickle before the flood. “Aha!” Gerald said. He pulled a book off the top shelf. “Here,” He dropped the book on the table in front of Arnold, who had started on his third of four chicken thighs. He kept chewing while he read the cover. “Where did you get this?” Arnold asked. The book had a bright yellow cover lettered in the amateur typeface of the long ago self-published. Mass Murderers in White Coats was the title. The author was Lenny Lapon; he was identified on the back as a former mental patient. Arnold had the thought that in America there was no such thing as a former mental patient. Former mental patient. That was a lifelong judgement. There was a line in this world and once you crossed it you could never come all the way back. That was not fair, nor in any real way true, but Arnold knew he was not the only one thinking that way. “That book tells the whole story. How after world war two the OSS, FBI and AMA helped all the good doctors who ran the Reich’s mental hygiene program come over here. And the Herr Doktors helped us set up our mental health system.” “Where did you get this?” “It was in the donation box at a clinic where I stayed for a while last year.” “That’s a healthy choice.” “I’m learning the truth here. About the men who built our psychiatric industrial complex. Who do you think came up with the notion that walls without windows, razor wire fences and numbing medications were what would help sensitive minds that had lost the power of making sense of what they saw, heard and felt? Ideas are subtle and powerful Arnold. What have I been punished for all these years?” “Your behavior. If you can fix your behavior you can think and feel whatever you want. That’s how it works.” “I’ll clear up,” Rita said. She gathered the dishes and took them to the kitchen. Arnold noticed his plate was empty. He had lost the memory of eating the food, but felt a new pressure and heaviness in his belly. “There’s a great reckoning coming,” Gerald said. “Here it comes.” “What do you mean?” “Some sweeping pronouncement. You are not part of any life that matters so you think that makes your anger and generalizations even more important.” “C’mere.” Gerald stood up, steadying himself on the table. Under the food and the wine Arnold felt a panic wake up, ready itself for an assault on his thoughts. Who the hell are you to think anybody cares what you think? Why did he hear that in their mother’s brittle voice? She never said anything so cruel, not with her words. She just thought it. Who needed words when silence and a look can crush the souls of the ones you profess to love. The hell with panic. Arnold thought. He owned two rental houses, a luxury condo that was mostly paid off and had seven hundred fifty k invested. What did he have to fear? “Are you coming?” Gerald asked. Out the window all traces of the sun had vanished. Street lights and head lights shredded the lower darkness. Arnold realized his brother was talking, lecturing really. “I’ve been thinking about this. There is something we all know but want to tell ourselves we have forgotten. The impulse that comes before thought. The thing that moves us to live. We are dying. We live alone inside our skin and yet we are all part of the same thing. And we are losing that thing, that connection. We cannot see that it is more wisdom and sensitivity we need, not less. Our culture is dying because we are afraid to look at our world and what we have made of it, done to it. We are so afraid of the truth we feel in our guts that we think the only escape is to do more nothing faster.” Gerald crossed his arms on his chest and gazed out the window with a fixed, but calm, expression. “Speak for yourself,” Arnold said. “You’re not following my point.” “I am following it too well. You are convinced the world is going to fall into an abyss because you are afraid for your own future. Well, buddy, the world keeps on going. We are the ones who fall in the end.” “How can I not be part of the world?” Gerald asked innocently, his tone that of a grad student nailing a nemesis with a Quod Erat Demonstratum. “By running into your weakness and hiding there,” Arnold said and having said it felt the panic melt in his chest like dew from a violet. He was really saying it. This time he would not back down. “You can’t have it both ways, failing and mattering because you fail. Look out there. Do you think anyone cares?" He was about to add what we think or do? But his speech was interrupted when a sweeping gesture of arms and shoulders that he was making to amplify his point brought his temple into collision with the sharp corner of one of Gerald’s overstuffed book cases. Arnold dropped like a knick knack tumbling off a shelf. In point of fact a couple knick knacks accompanied him on his fall. A plexiglass paperweight bounced off his chest. A framed picture of Rita and Gerald smacked to the floor beside his head. That could have done some damage, Arnold thought with the distant clarity of a fallen drunk. Arnold noticed that he was looking up at his brother. He touched the place on his forehead where a pain pounded at him like a bad memory. His hand came away wet and red. “Oh my goodness.” Rita’s voice was like tragic music. As they lifted him to the couch and put a cold compress on his forehead Arnold sorted out recent events. Where was his car? Down on the street. The sunset had gone but would his car be there? Did he have a date later or was this dinner it for the evening? Perhaps he had drunk too much. Mother had warned him about something. No that was some other time. Some other me. It was nice to sit here; this was really a very soft and welcoming couch. As Arnold sank into the couch, Rita’s soft hands grazed his forehead. He felt a sting on his head and a twist of nausea in his belly. He did not want to puke while Rita ministered to him. His vision was blurred; Gerald wavered briefly into two Geralds, one solid, the other empty, transparent, but just as real, as if Gerald’s possibilities were trying to be born. Arnold blinked and the figures shifted back into one, his brother sitting on the edge of the couch; his forehead creased by concern. Rita placed a large band aid on Arnold’s forehead. As he watched her face watching her fingers at work he was suddenly angry, viciously angry, ready to take on the world with a shield and a sword angry. Why was this world not ready for his big brother? Why could he not find a place? And easy as having that thought his belly untwisted. Rita stood up to admire her work. All was better now. This bit of time was enough. He could stay here forever. Forever lasted twenty minutes. By then Arnold was clear enough to walk, but not sober enough to drive. The decision was made that they would call him a ride home and he would come back tomorrow to eat brunch and pick up his car. As the hired driver pulled into traffic, Arnold felt the warm traces Rita’s hands had left on his forehead. He remembered standing by the lake at the family cottage and watching his brother untangle his fishing line. They had been about thirteen, not quite boys anymore. “This is going to be fine. We’ll get the big one. He’s out there.” Gerald had said. Arnold relaxed into the seat and let the weight of the cab’s motion soothe him. It was nice to have a big brother.