Inevitably Joe’s determined curiosity widened to include the rest of the world. As his medical condition worsened, his parents curtailed family outings without saying a word or ever referring to the involuntary confined nature of the shorter vacations. “Any chance of a trip somewhere exotic, Dad?” he asked, once. He saw the anguished looks and exchanged, entrapped glance they shared over his head. Joey never asked again.
Joey’s queries toned down and became more secretive. On his way to the public library, he discovered a table covered with stacks of old postcards in a junk shop. Joey fanned out sanitized images of capitol cities and stared transfixed. He fingered the old thick cardboard and posited himself there, an alternate Joe someplace seen by him only in his imagination. He knew kismet had randomly assigned him the death card.
Perhaps a few freebies were in the mix as well.
Some magazines had coupons for glossy brochures of vacation getaways. He filled out coupons in his careful script and sent them off. He started writing away to travel agencies and to the embassies of foreign countries.
Descriptions began pouring in from around the globe and woke a deep hunger in him for all the things and places he’d never get to see. His reading matter shifted to books about exotic locales. Joey did weeks of research on the wide, wide world in the library’s travel and geography stacks. He read about Europe first, and next he planned to move on to Africa, and South America, and Asia, last stop the Antarctic!
Lou found an application sheet his brother had hidden. “A new opportunity for a new life …Whatever your origins, nationality or religion might be, whatever qualifications you may or may not have, whatever your social or professional status might be, whether you are married or single, the French Foreign Legion offers you a chance to start a new life…”
Lou went on reading, incredulous. Joey had filled out the forms right up to the paragraph indicating that selection for the Legion was carried out in person near Marseille, and that the applicant had to be physically fit to serve at all times in all places. Lou put the form back in the desk and never told his brother he’d seen it.
– from my short story “Hit and Run” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available as paperback or eBook at amazon.com,amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere. Go to my posts Hit & Run 1, 2 & 3 for more on Joey, Lou and Margaret.
He entered magazine contests and it didn’t matter what the prizes were. Mrs. Bocci was the first housewife in their neighborhood to own a brand new Maytag dishwasher. He won an extra dryer, which his parents passed on to their aunt and uncle for Christmas that year when his newest cousin was born.
He loved the surprise of each free gift. Sur-prizes, he called them. Joey sent away for samples of things just for the hell of it. He had the time; what else was he going to do with all those hours stuck sitting in his wheel chair? His family received the first volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. A through Androphagi. He kept Mom in perfume and the rest of the family in soap and shampoo. Any time a new product came out, such as the first mint toothpaste, Joey ordered it. The Boccis were always the first ones on the block to try any of them.
His past time took on epic proportions. They didn’t just have free food samples to try. Joey ordered free animal feed samples too: packets of birdseed. Hamster food. Gold fish pellet food. Pouches of cat food and dog food, even horse feed. His parents finally told Joey to stop with the animal feed already; they couldn’t even have any pets because of the danger of allergies or infection from scratches. Joey’s dad donated it all to the local animal shelter.
Once or twice a week the mailman delivered a package containing free items with company logos. Joey would read about a new product being promoted and bing, the coupons were clipped and filled out and in the mail before anyone could stop him. The Bocci household received free tote bags, baseball caps, tee shirts and socks and other products. Actually his parents didn’t try to stop him from sending away for those items once they realized how much money his obsession was saving them on clothes.
He won a ride in the local weather helicopter – and because he couldn’t fly because of air pressure and collapsing sinus issues, Lou and Mr. Bocci went in his place. Now that was cool!
Here the tale ended abruptly, the silence Margaret’s cue to ask questions. It didn’t matter what she asked, really, as long as it gave Lou an idea of what she wanted to hear about next. “Was he persistent or just incredibly lucky?”
“Margaret,” Lou explained patiently, “no one was ever stupid enough to call Joey lucky. But yes, he had a run of luck where it seemed like the Universe was giving him a break to make up for the crap cards he’d been dealt just by being born. He really did have fun entering contests and winning stuff.”
“What’s the coolest thing he ever won?”
Lou frowned. “I just told you: the helicopter ride. At least to me and my Dad it was the coolest,” he amended, yielding to the apologetic look on his girlfriend’s face. “And he won fourth prize in a contest for a new Pontiac. My parents took the cash from that one and put into savings bonds. That money helped put me through college.”
“It was okay with Joe? He didn’t want the money for himself?”
“Well,” Lou said slowly, “by then his lucky streak was running out. Joey hid it from the rest of us. He’d started getting weaker again instead of stronger… He didn’t have a whole lot of time left. And I think he was trying to win money and prizes for us to make up for the gap that would be there after he was gone.”
Margaret sighed and hugged her boyfriend. “Jesus, Lou. How could your family stand it?”
Lou shrugged. “We didn’t get calloused or anything, but it wasn’t like any of us didn’t know the end was coming. We just kind of… went on as we had been. What else is there to say? Joey was the glue for a broken situation; it was broke from the minute he was born. He was the glue holding the entire family together in spite of everything.”
“I just think, I mean, I can’t imagine how you all dealt with it.”
“Margaret, I never cease to be amazed at what people just deal with when they have to. How did my family deal with stuff? We just, did. Until we couldn’t any longer. When Joey went in the hospital the last time we thought it was temporary, just more of the usual batteries of tests. When his doctors found the tumor I think everyone knew that this was going to be it.”
“At least you all had each other. Your family was so strong!”
He looked at her with a strange expression. “Babe, that’s the whole point of what I’ve been telling you. We weren’t strong. Joey was! We were people he was supporting through his illness. The only thing we had in common was the DNA connection. Joey was never related to anybody I could figure out, not really, unless it was some kind of genetically defective super hero who hasn’t been invented or born yet.”
– from my short story “Hit and Run” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com,amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere. Go to my posts Hit & Run 1 & 2 for more on Joey, Lou and Margaret.
Joey sat in the school library for hours. He hid there during recess and lunch periods, but the sounds of everyone out on the playground came through the open windows. Hearing the sound of other children shrieking was bad, and as Joey listened he tried to imagine it came from children somewhere far away. When he did see them the distance apparent between what they could do and what he could not was too terrible. He would perch at the dark wood of the windowsill, holding himself upright and steady with one hand as he watched. Children in groups skipped ropes, chased balls, played tag. The teacher with recess duty wore a light jacket and an expression of endless weary patience. He or she sometimes called out across the tarmac, “Hey! That’s enough of that, Loreen!”
Unseen and unimportant, from the high window Joey observed when the teacher rushed to the aid of a fallen child or broke up a playground fight. He hated it. Watching reminded him that no one would ever need to run to prevent him from doing something he shouldn’t; watching only reminded him that he couldn’t run.
Joey moved to a table where he could sit with his back to the windows. Determinedly Joey closed his ears to the cries of his peers playing outside the walls and forever beyond his ken.
Eventually Joey made his way through all of the school magazines. He began to take the bus to the public library. After school Joey sat among the adult publications where he felt less excluded. Around him sat members of his home city’s increasing homeless population, noisily turning pages and keeping a careful eye on their oversized bags of belongings. There were a few students, or grown ups coming in to claim the copies of recent novels they had put on hold, and every so often a class of younger children arrived for reading hour. Otherwise though, Joey could feel like he was simply another library user, ageless and without handicaps.
This was when he discovered adult magazines with their endless advertisements for write-in contests, coupons to win prizes, and teasers to learn more about great deals. Joey flipped pages hunting for things to win, things to present to his parents. Joey wanted, Lou said thoughtfully, to present them with distractions from the nonrefundable item they’d brought home from the hospital: their youngest son and his damaged body.
– from my short story “Hit and Run” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com,amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere. Go to my post Hit & Run 1 for more on Joey, Lou and Margaret.
Lou became a different person when he talked about his dead brother. Each time he mentioned Joey’s name Lou’s own plain, pleasant face would animate. It was as if a locked cabinet door suddenly swung open, each time letting out bright treasures long stacked up and locked away for safekeeping.
Margaret learned not to interrupt the flow of memories; when she asked too many questions the stories might derail. Plus Lou tossed out medical terms that meant nothing to her. She had no idea he knew so much about medicine and genetic diseases.
She preferred the details about what his days with Joey had been like. “We’d sit on an old couch in the rec room and watch TV,” Lou recalled, and it took shape as he spoke. It was yellow and brown plaid and really ugly. Mrs. Bocci had covered it with a clashing afghan, luckily out of sight down in the remodeled cellar. Lou and Joey watched television down there in the darkened room, drinking cokes and eating candy bars. Or Lou did; Joey had to avoid sugar as his parents and medical team tried successive diet regimes to control his myriad conditions.
Lou and Joey were exactly the same height, and they had the same features. The boys were monozygotic, what they call identical twins. They were truly identical. Only 8% of twins are monozygotic, and double births like Lou and Joey make up only 3 in every 1,000 deliveries worldwide, regardless of race. The chances of a fertilization ending in monozygotic twins are the same, for every population everywhere, all around the world.
Lou’s voice took on a slightly lecturing tone as he recited each fact about Joey and his life. Margaret ate them up. The more facts he imparted the smarter she became, both about the topic of twins and about her boyfriend. With fraternal twins, Lou told her, the most frequent occurrence is brother/sister births. In identical or monozygotic twins, brother/brother births are the rarest births of all.
When the boys were out together in public it was more than obvious something was wrong. Clearly Joe was confined to a wheelchair or needed to use a cane to walk. If the viewer didn’t see the handicaps, though, Joey and Lou were identical. Without the cane or braces in plain sight, it was only when Joey coughed that someone could identify which twin was which.
As they aged they would likely become more alike, with the same IQ and personality. How twins are brought up, whether in the same house or separated at birth – that factor makes surprisingly little difference. Of course, the fact Joey was born with congenital defects complicated the math equation for the prediction. But the boys loved being twins; it was cool. Because of his brother, because of Joey, Lou was automatically special. While Joey was still alive, Lou stopped wanting to be an astronaut. For a time he wanted to go into genetic research.
Margaret went home each evening to sleep that was attended by strange dreams. Cells replicated in her dreams, forming up on the left into a perfectly regular human shape. On the opposite side, a tragically beautiful über-human took form. The gestalt was unquestionably male. But then the contour of the image blurred and curled at the edges, unable to hold his ideal form.
She woke up thinking about Lou and his frail, pale double.
Margaret began looking at Lou with different eyes. He simply wasn’t the same person as before. Lou hadn’t changed, of course, but his past and the absent twinned half that had been tragically cut down by illness, the part of him inexorably gone was the part Margaret found mysterious. The lost duplicate cells were of endless fascination for her.
In the hours between dates with Lou, Margaret daydreamed about her lover. How many other seemingly ordinary men and women might there be in the world, persons who seemed so common on the outside, all of them with their secrets and old tragedies. How many people had strange cloned or parallel universe doubles, tragically vanished and never to be retrieved? Maybe, she mused, maybe we all have doubles we sense on some strange level, and we mourn them without ever realizing it. When we talk about the search to find your soul mate, maybe what we really mean is your other half, the part you lost in some earlier life. And when you meet again in the current incarnation, you come together to be whole without even recognizing it’s happened. It’s just your missing twin, whom you’ve refound.
She scoffed at herself for such fanciful notions, but Margaret was a little bit envious of her boyfriend’s past history. Strangely, his incompleteness made him whole. Lou wasn’t a decent guy with a good if boring career. He was somehow so much more than the sum of his parts, both those existing and the ones that had vanished. Or maybe especially those parts that were dead. Not only did Margaret observe Lou with new eyes; she really saw him for the first time. Margaret began to fall in love.
– from my short story “Hit and Run” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com,amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere. Go to my posts Hit & Run 2 & 3 for more on Joey, Lou and Margaret.