That night they sat in his back yard drinking beers as Lou tended the grill in his methodic way. He had a system, checking and giving the sausages a quarter turn every minute or so. Lou stood and clicked the tongs rhythmically open and shut. It was a desultory summer night and they talked lazily, enjoying the warmth from the last rays of the setting sun. Once the sun set it would be colder. A covered salad and plates and silverware were already on the picnic table and Margaret got them two more beers. Lou measured out the time with his tongs, waiting for the next question to come.
Lou was surprised at how penetrating that question turned out to be. It took him off guard. “Weren’t the two of you ever jealous? I mean, you and Joey were so close, much closer than I ever was with my sisters growing up, that’s for sure. But didn’t you ever feel any jealousy or sibling rivalry?”
She waited for an answer but he didn’t say anything for a long minute. Idly she looked up from her beer. Lou stood on the grassy verge at the grill, metal tongs hanging limply from his right hand. He’d closed his eyes and as she watched something rippled through his body.
In the depictions of his twin who died, Lou willingly spoke in detail about sores that refused to close, the insidious subdermal spread of haematomas, all the strange symptoms that manifested themselves and either joined the litany of things wrong with his brother, or else vanished as abruptly as they appeared. But Lou deliberately avoided talking about the darker widening spread of another congenital disease Joey had: jealousy. It was a fatal condition festering in Lou, too, the inevitable sibling rivalry impossibly squared and cubed to proportions that could fill a room but never be acknowledged. Joey might be incurably ill, but the real elephant in the room was their shared envy. When the boys hit their teenaged years, the fights became ugly and bitter with a resentment that was never far away in either of them.
It seeped into the peaceful moments. Every once in a while they would be in the middle of doing something great together, something only possible because Joey was ill and the boys were able to hang out all the time instead of following normal kids’ routines.
Joey would stop whatever they were doing. “You can stop being the perfect big brother anytime, you know,” he’d say. “Go live your own stupid life. Stop waiting for me to die, so that your life gets to begin!”
Lou denied it, inventing all sorts of protests. “You ass, you’re my brother, the only one I’m likely to get. I didn’t get any say in whether or not I had a brother – or whether I would have picked you.”
“I hate you!” Joey yelled. “You only take care of me because you have to! Go play baseball without me! Like I even care!”
Lou wanted nothing more than to strike his twin, but of course he couldn’t. Instead he laughed, and his voice held a scraping metallic rasp. “Screw you, Joe. I can’t go anywhere, because you’re my stupid, sick, perfect little brother. Everyone loves you best!” he yelled back. “You get all the attention! Every little thing you do is perfect, and you never get punished for anything! The little tragically doomed perfect child. Wouldn’t it be great if a brain tumor or cancer or some congenital disease wormed itself into my cellular make up?”
They had just finished lunch down in the rec room. Joey swept the half empty potato chips bag by the side of his brother’s plate off the table. His thin profile turned bright red. “I’ve had blood tests since the day I was born! Let’s trade places, shit head. You sit in the wheelchair; you go to my physical therapy appointments twice a week!”
Joey stabbed a finger at his twin. “No wait, better yet, take pills with meals and go lie in the hospital for more scans.” The small blue plastic container holding his afternoon medications followed the chips onto the floor. “You know what? You can have people whisper when you walk by the hallway, or let people’s little kids point at you in stores and ask Mommy, what’s wrong with that little boy?“
“Idiot!” Lou spit at him. “People point at me anyway. Idiot! I get to hear everyone talk in low voices whether you’re there or not, because I’m the kid stuck with the sick twin brother at home! I’m not even sick, but I get the special treatment right along with you. Don’t you dare tell me about how lucky I am.”
The rage inside filled him up. Lou knew exactly how normal he was. It was exactly that normalness his brother envied, the fact Lou could race around bases and play a mediocre tune on a saxophone. Joey didn’t have the lung capacity for brass or wind instruments, and sports were out of the question.
But Joey got all the attention. Everyone treated Joey special because he was born with a death sentence. Each year their birthday cake had both of their names on it in frosting. Lou could swear the candles always clustered by his brother’s name, because who knew how many more years he’d be around to eat another birthday cake? His schoolwork was always praised, and he was Mr. Clever.
Lou understood an implicit message that said the one thing special about him was that he was totally, completely, but really totally completely average. And that was supposed to be the greatest thing in the world, just being an average, ordinary son… while in secret Lou knew Joey’s condition was the most special thing in the whole universe. It made him unique, it set him apart, and Lou was jealous.
Lou would lie in his bed unable to sleep, feeling the guilt residing in his gut. He knew he shouldn’t be envious of his disabled twin, and his jealousy was wrong. Each time the feelings were followed by sardonic inner commentary. “Is this sick, or what? Oh no, that’s right, it’s Joey who’s sick!” Lou couldn’t even feel unique with his darkness.
He opened his eyes and slowly refocused back on where he was standing in his yard. Lou removed the sausages with short jabs of the tongs. “Sibling rivalry? Were we ever jealous?” He stabbed at the grill one last time and pushed Margaret’s plate roughly across the picnic table at her.
“Jealous? Only all the time. You want to hear about jealous?”
Margaret sat without moving and listened while Lou poured out decades of anger and anguish about his dead twin. She knew the last outburst was directed at Lou the adult, and not himself as a boy with a twin brother doomed to die.
Their outdoor meals grew cold. “God,” Lou said, staring at Margaret with hatred when he finished talking. “God. You have no idea how jealous I was. And Joey was jealous right back.
“But the crowning moment when it was clear to me exactly how not special I am, was the day of a neighborhood picnic. Dad had just finished describing the last round of hospital tests they’d had to take Joey in for. The drunk down the street said, ‘At least you two still have Lou. He’s totally normal, right?’
“‘Yeah, Lou’s a good kid,’ was all my dad said before he turned away. When they saw me standing there listening, they changed the subject.
“That’s me in a nutshell: a good kid.”
Lou leaned across and grasped Margaret by both shoulders. He kissed her, hard, and bit through the cloth of her light sweater. She felt the sharp edges of his teeth press against the skin of her neck, just below her jaw line. “Ouch!” she gasped. It hurt, but she put one hand behind his head and grasped his hair to pull his mouth back up and over her own. He shuddered and bit down on her lip, and she welcomed the pain.
That night Lou made love to her as if he was trying to climb out of his own skin away from the released memories. His earlier admission hung in the bedroom, somewhere up by the ceiling. Like an angel or a poltergeist, the ghost of someone dead but not gone, it hovered. Joey’s spirit looked down and watched them.
NOTES: ©Jadi Campbell 2012. “Hit and Run” is the first chapter of my book Broken In: A Novel in Stories. This story will run all month. Broken In and my other novels are available at Amazon as paperbacks and eBooks.
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