Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 5 • Spring 2003 • Fiction

Big Man

Bara Swain

A home-grown Memphis boy, I escaped my redneck past via a one-way ticket to Arizona in July 1981. My oldest brother, John D., had taken the same route but a different flight twenty years earlier, hiding our mother's crossword puzzle book and two six-packs of Bud to get her attention. "Mama," my brother had said, "tell Daddy to buy a new mattress and an air-conditioner and give Poboy my room. I won't be coming back." My mother cuffed John D. across the face with the back of her hand. He was twenty-one years old then, wiry, sixteen years my senior, marked by a gang rape charge reduced to aggravated assault that cost him his high school diploma, a two-year stint for Uncle Sam, and sinewy calves.

With the reflexes of an ex-Humes High boxing champ, John D. caught Mama's hand between his teeth and I waited for him to sink his new dentures into her mottled flesh. Instead, he stared into my mother's surprised purple irises, let go of the bone like a bored dog, and ruffled my home-permed hair. "You got two homo sons already, Mama. If you don't watch out, this little man will be number three." Then John D. lifted me into the air by the fairy loop Mama had sewn inside my purple hand-knitted sweater with pink hearts. Dangling three feet above the floor, I dipped my hand into my pocket. "Look, John D.," I piped in my earnest five-year-old voice, "I pulled the wings off this fly. Do you think I'll be a man like you some day?" John D. popped the fly in his mouth, swallowed, then wrapped his arms around me. He whispered into my ear, "Little Man, you get laid as soon as you can. Then get the hell out of here. D'you understand?"

Mama and Daddy never spoke of John D. again. I fished his inscribed Christmas cards from the kitchen trash, removing the fragile eggshells, gravy dripping and soggy cornflakes with the tenderness of a change-of-life sibling. As soon as I was old enough and smart enough, I began writing to John D. on a regular basis. I was eleven years old then, and I knew two things for sure: 1) I was a faggot and 2) I wanted to be a writer. By the time I graduated from high school, my brother had moved from Chicago to New York City, was drinking heavily, but continued our correspondence.

Dear Little Man,

It's a dog's life in the Big Apple. Wish you were here.

Remember this: If you can't eat it and you can't piss on it, then fuck it.

Love, your faithful old dog and loving bro,

John D.

I received my brother's wedding invitation in Arizona where, by day, I was employed as a food columnist and obituary writer at a local newspaper. By night, I was ghost writing gothic romances for a small reputable press and sharing a king-sized waterbed with my editor-in-chief, Nathan Silverman, on the outskirts of Phoenix. When my future sister-in-law called to urge me to attend their marriage ceremony, I declined in the macho voice I usually reserved for grieving widows and widowers. In fact, that was no small feat in itself, considering I was dressed in a blue gingham Dorothy dress and whipping Nathan aka Glinda with her magic wand while my mini-sheltie, Liza aka Toto, watched and, upon my invitation, participated.

A few months after my brother married, my mother called me. I hadn't heard from her in five or six years, since her detailed account of Daddy's gall bladder operation. That she never asked "How are you?" is my mother personified -- bitter, self-centered and afraid of her progeny. Still, I was more than apprehensive when I heard Mama's raspy voice. "John D. is dying," she said. "You need to go to New York and find out what's going on with your big brother and that young Jewess of a wife of his."

I dyed my yellow hair a mousy brown, traded in my snake skin pants for a pair of olive green trousers and hopped the next plane to Kennedy Airport. During take-off, I opened the shopping bag that Nathan had thrust at me before boarding. I ate the jar of pistachio nuts while I skimmed the first six chapters of Erica Jong's Fear of Flying. Nathan's instincts were good; his literary prowess was lacking. On my first trip to the bathroom, I squeezed out a small bowel movement. On my next I re-wrote Jong's Zipless Fuck with an S&M slant on a disposable toilet seat shield. My third trip was devoted to revision, revision, revision. When the plane finally touched down, I was ready to take on the world. I bargained with the God I didn't believe in. If John D. lived, I would read War and Peace.

I arrived at the hospital in a slightly intoxicated state, accelerated by apprehension to a false drunken stupor. I wove into the elevator, sharing the silver cab with a diminutive nun blessed with Sally Field's toothy smile and pert breasts. On the tenth floor I exited and followed a Richard Chamberlain look-alike down a short corridor to the Coronary Care Unit. The harsh light penetrated my eyelids, singeing my corneas like a hot ash. My only recourse was to open them again. Beyond the first glass partition, I saw John D.

My hell-raising brother lay in bed, stiff as the board that secured his left arm to his side. His free hand was buried to the wrist in his wife's hair. I stepped closer. The young woman moved a sponge down my brother's chest, delivering a milk-warm bath to her dying husband. She murmured in a throaty voice, a sound as fresh and promising as a loaf of bread rising in the oven. Her small circles deepened into wider arcs. She was serene, intoxicating. As my sister-in-law pressed her lips to the inside of John D.'s arm, an alarm shrieked overhead. In a parallel moment, my brother thrust his fingers deeper into his wife's massive tangles. An announcement blared, "Code Blue, 1064 West. Code Blue, 1064 West." The thunder of heavy footsteps pounded in my ears. Like the U.S. cavalry in a spaghetti western, the green and white scrubs charged into his room sans horses. I swayed. Three cowboys with stethoscopes tried to extract my brother's hand. A masked man began chest compressions. A nurse shouted, "Scissors! We need scissors!" A saw, I thought. My kingdom for a saw! The image that still plays in my mind was my last of a real man in the throes of love and death. It was a picture of my brother lying naked in bed, his wife curled up at his side. The saw I invented as the only recourse to separate husband and wife materialized in Dr. Kildare's hand. He took aim and cracked open my brother's chest. Blood spurted across the soulmates. The Jewess never flinched. I knew everything I needed to know. I went home.

Eleven years later, I was measuring the hem of my Marilyn Monroe eveningwear look, when the telephone rang. Nathan was vacuuming our hallway in the buff, a habit that was as annoying as his insistence that we begin all of our bedroom scenes with testimonials of our love. I laid the size 16 dress on our futon and headed to the kitchen. "Hello, Sweetheart," I said, in my faggiest voice. I was greeted by a sharp inhalation. From the bowels of the next exhale, a husky voice emerged. "He's dead," she said. There was no mistaking the caller. "OH, MY POOR BABY!" my mother wailed. "OH, LORD, MY SWEET CHILD! JOHN D. IS DEAD! THE JEWESS MURDERED YOUR BROTHER!"

The next morning, I packed my suitcase while Nathan tried to seduce me with a rather good Liza Minelli imitation. He was still crooning "New York, New York" when the airport service arrived. I looked at the man I had pretended to love for umpteen years and I felt cheated. As a farewell gesture, Nathan slipped a joint into my pocket. I threw it out the window as the car picked up speed. Nathan did not know that I would never see him again. Neither did I. I directed the driver to downtown Phoenix, cleaned out my savings account, and walked to the bus terminal. I paid cash for my ticket to Chicago. There I would begin my new life.

Over the years, my brother's murder played over and over in my head like a low-budget porno. Other than the act of dying, I could not find motivation. Why did the Jewess do it? How did she do it? On the five-year anniversary of John D.'s death, I hit rock bottom. I was watching the remake of The Fly one night when I was gripped by the need to know what happened on my brother's final day. The next morning, armed with a yellow legal pad and three ballpoint pens, I marched to the library.

My first search revealed a New York Times obituary dated June 11, 1995. Other than that, John D.'s murder was an enigma. I needed to speak to my incarcerated sister-in-law. In fact, I found her via a thirteen-year-old niece whose existence was unknown to me until that morning. She answered the telephone on the third ring. The shock of her subtle twang in the single voiced word gave me goose bumps. "Hullo?" she said. Without thinking, I asked to speak to her father. "My dad is dead," said the orphan, rolling her consonants, "but my mom is here. Do you want to speak to her?" I heard the child shout, "MOM! IT'S SOMEONE WHO SOUNDS JUST LIKE DADDY!"

Rather than attempting to give an accurate account of my brother's murder, I'll leave the task of telling the story from a letter I received from his widow.

You can imagine my shock when I received your phone call. It's been sixteen years since we last spoke, Little Man. I order you not to apologize again. To coin your brother's favorite phrase, "shit happens."

In answer to your questions: I don't know how to describe the years that followed John D.'s first illness. Perhaps this will help. We lived like Siamese twins in self-imposed isolation. A dying man who doesn't succumb is a burden to any friendship outside the hospital walls. Even inside the hospital (our home away from home) there were moments when I felt that his death would bring more relief than his survival. Our true identities remained intact by our shared experience and our angel, Jenny, whom you spoke to briefly last week. Her "being" was my only protection: the reality of our daughter dismissed any fantasies that buried me with my husband.

You're right on one account. John D. was a private man. His humor and grace and courage will be difficult to capture in words (even the words of his favorite brother). I'm not sure that I can help you, Little Man, but if my husband's death will give you any insight on his life and offer you any peace, then I'll begin with the phone call. That single call was colored by your brother's defiance and acceptance in the face of death. I don't know how else to describe it. A given premise: our occupational therapist had exhausted all probabilities that John D. would ever learn how to operate a telephone or a vacuum cleaner or a VCR. Subsequently, during the last six months, our focus had been limited to identifying fruits and vegetables and the proper use of the refrigerator. Still, the phone call was dialed by his own hand. "Babe," said my husband, "I was picking up Jenny's laundry when a funny thing happened. It felt like a truck ran over my chest." I tried not to panic. "Your defibrillator must have gone off," I said. "Stay put. I'll be right home."

Let me digress. John D. had been brain damaged since 1991 from severe anoxia caused by a cardiac arrhythmia. His remaining lung (the left one was removed in 1987) was rapidly failing, too. Our only recourse was a heart-lung transplant. With our seven year old in tow, we began the evaluation process. Jenny did not need prompting. At the end of each failed interview she pleaded our case, "Please help us keep my daddy alive. We love him so much." My failure and Jenny's failure was momentarily eased by a state-of-the-art defibrillator. The device was surgically implanted in John D.'s chest. If an abnormal heart rhythm set in, the instrument would shoot off electrical shock waves to stabilize him long enough to get him to the hospital. I was sure that his next heart attack -- number thirteen -- would be averted and that my husband would live forever. On the other hand, I was not sure that I would survive his lifetime. If I had known then that it was your brother's last year on earth, perhaps the terror that filled every atom of my body could have found an outlet. I exchanged the "fight" of the "fight or flight" syndrome and began to run away. I ran directly into the arms of a man who had lost his wife to cancer the previous year. Sex is a powerful weapon. Celibate since our daughter's birth, I ached for the normalcy of optimal health and life-affirming sex. The seed to leave my husband was planted between my legs by my lover. I began to make plans.

A few days before my husband died, I announced my decision to leave him. "For another man?" he asked. "No, John D., " I answered, "you're the only real man I've ever known." My husband, the same man who could not differentiate a broccoli spear from a green bean, grasped the concept immediately. He looked at me with those beautiful cow eyes and said, "Then I've lost everything, haven't I?" I showed him my scarred arms and legs from the burns that brought the only relief from the burden of pain that seared through my body as I contemplated a life with him and without him. "I will always take care of you, John D. But I have to take care of myself for awhile. Do you understand?"

I just remembered a counseling session where our therapist burst into tears. I had said to the woman, "I don't want to be with my husband when he dies." She turned to John D. and asked, "How do you feel about that?" My husband held my hand in his and said, "I don't need my wife to be with me when I die. I need her to be with me while I'm alive." Then he offered the sobbing woman his handkerchief.

In retrospect, our final meal together was almost celebratory. We'd returned from the E.R. in good spirits. "Your husband's defibrillator malfunctioned," the doctor had said. "Bring him back to see me in three months." I accepted the explanation and we cabbed home for dinner. John D. looked ravenous. Halfway through a pastrami sandwich on rye, his neck snapped back. The can of diet coke in his hand dangled mid-air then dropped. As the soda spilled across the table, another object flew at my face. It was my husband's false teeth. I pulled the six foot two man off the chair and dumped him on our kitchen floor. I began my first and last attempt at CPR. I knew that I couldn't revive him. I'd killed the only man I loved two days earlier.

So you see, I never left my husband, Little Man. He left me. What is the punishment for the cold-blooded crime I committed? I believe it's my freedom. Is there any solace? Jenny, our daughter. On my worst days, I know that I don't deserve her. In my broken dreams, I can hear my child singing with her sweet father ... "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose." There must be something, Little Man.

When I finished reading the letter, I chopped and diced six celery stalks, five carrots, half an onion and a five-pound bag of Idaho potatoes before the full loss of my brother overwhelmed me through infinity.

Bara Swain is the recipient of a dozen writing grants for new plays and fiction. Her prose appears in Long Shot Magazine; the anthology Love Is Ageless: Stories about Alzheimer's Disease; and the chapbook Daifuku: Delicious Short Fiction and Poetry. Her work is also featured in Stickman Review, Tattoo Highway, Moxie, Riverbabble, and Pulse. Bara's award-winning plays have been performed in New York, Missouri, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Iowa. Venues include the Dubuque Fine Arts One Act Play Festival, Tennessee Williams Ten Minute Play Festival, Lamia Ink!'s International One Page Play Festival, and the Turnip Theater Festival. Bara is the Dorsal Editor at Doorknobs & BodyPaint. She is a graduate from the New School's MFA Creative Writing Program.

Go To: Issue 5 or Lodestar Quarterly home page