My brother Jayson was crying into his end of our phone conversation. He didn’t try to hide the tears, as most men do, when their envisioned lives unspool from the preview reel that plays in our heads as grown men. His idea of the perfect life and home was the natural byproduct of being the youngest child left to be co-parented by The Cleaver’s, The Brady’s, and The Huxtable’s, where within twenty-two minutes, problems arise and are solved neatly amidst the precisely timed and spaced eight minutes of cutaways to commercial breaks.
He did nothing to prevent me from hearing him try to calm his voice, his occasional deep inhale or exhale, his wiping of mucous on a sleeve, the blood of a broken heart. Jayson didn’t know what to do with what would become his life without Renee and her two-year-old daughter, Chloe. With her and her daughter, he had told me during one of his sporadic late night phone calls from Colorado, he felt like he finally wanted to settle down.
“Are you still looking for a job?” I asked.
Renee left him, for the true reason behind the love that many women offer to men: security. He had been unemployed for several months, released from his latest job, towing cars away from the Denver International Airport, for pissing a hot UA. The security that Jayson may have once offered or represented for Renee had diminished and she moved on with another man, someone capable of being a provider and a father-figure for her daughter Chloe. The cruelest part of the end of their relationship was because Jayson met Renee when she was four months pregnant with Chloe. He did not have children, had never been married, yet he fell in love with her and her unborn child.
“I won’t get to see her grow up,” he said. “Not at all. Not anymore.”
I knew he was talking about Chloe and it made sense to me that Renee would want to prevent any future relationship problems and confusion for Chloe by excluding Jayson from their lives. The loss of the being a step-father didn’t make the breakup any easier for him.
“I’ve lost everything,” he said.
“You still have family here,” I offered. “Come here.”
“Can’t live with Mom and Dad,” he said. “I’m too old, thirty-six.”
“Move in with me,” I said. At 41, I lived alone and had a small two-bedroom bungalow just off Riverside Drive in Tulsa. I would have to rearrange some furniture, put his unneeded furnishings in the garage, but Jayson was family, and my brother needed a home. He would have time to get a job and back on his feet while he worked his way toward beginning his life again. I wanted to be present while he healed, to offer help.
Headed east, I-70 hummed under us, my truck pulling the small packed U-Haul trailer hitched to the bumper. I planned to drive the full route to Salina, Kansas, south through Wichita to the highway 412 exit north of Perry, Oklahoma, then the last leg east to Tulsa.
On the seat between us was a half empty traveler bottle of Jim Beam. I used to work in a liquor store and this was the preferred style of bottle for those folks that made drinking a way of life. The bottle carried the same fluid amount as a regular fifth at 750ml, but rather than having a square body and base, the bottle was narrow and rectangular, the width of a hip or inside jacket pocket, so the bottle could travel discreetly. Jayson had filled the largest fountain drink cup available at the Flying J truck stop in Limon, Colorado, halfway up with Dr. Pepper. He topped the cup to the rim with his traveler of Beam, snapped on the lid and poked the straw through. Jayson planned to sleep the whole way.
My phone vibrated and Alison’s picture appeared on the screen. We had been seeing each other for several months after meeting on a film we had worked on together. I picked up the phone and thumbed the green answer button.
“Are you getting close?” she asked.
“We’re near half way,” I said.
“How’s your brother?” she asked.
“He’s been better.”
“Text me when you get in,” Alison said.
Jayson grumbled something unintelligible, shifted lower in the seat, pulled his jacket over his head and went back to sleep.
My brother and I had shared a home as single men before, in 1996, roles reversed, my relationship had collapsed and his sex life still had that new car smell to it. He helped me through my breakup by listening to my rants, jumped on a few grenades for me along the way and cut through the relationship haze I was in with his hard advice. His counsel wasn’t misogynistic, but it was indeed meant for me to utilize as self-serving. He told me to take my time, see plenty of women, lock down with no one. Because of his input, I’d closed myself off from real relationships for some time, opting for the occasional sweat with any random woman that I encountered, that was amenable, that I found attractive. After a while, I disconnected from even this diverting activity, preferring to be alone.
Six months into our house sharing, a faulty floor furnace charcoal etched the underneath side of the oak floor in our house. After weeks of smoldering, during the coldest January in 20 years, the floor ignited, flames cut along floor joists and jagged up inside the dry walls of the saltbox house. The smoke painted the inside of the windows, mirrors, the bathtub, the spines and tops of my library and the protective plastic box that held a baseball signed by Joe DiMaggio, a ball that was once cradled in a hand that held Marilyn Monroe. The coat of soot was wet from the outside elements — elements allowed in when I opened the front door, the precipitation carried on the damp air being inhaled by the house.
When the house exhaled that one and only time, the kitchen and dining room windows blew out and the flames knifed out the open front door and through the ceiling into the attic. The firemen came soon after, flooding the house, destroying with water what had not been taken by fire.
Jayson moved in with a friend and I took a job transfer to another state, eager to make a home elsewhere. Twelve years had passed and now we would share the same address again.
“Can I change the color in here?” Jayson asked. “I need something other than egg shell surrounding me.”
The extra bedroom he was moving into had been my office. It had occurred to me several times to roll on a nice calm, light shade of green or blue, at least on two walls of the 12×12 room, but thought better of it. You can‘t be too comfortable in a home office. There’s plenty enough out there to pull you out of the chair, to divert you. I didn’t need a relaxing room to put me to sleep anytime I needed to work.
I sat at my desk, which was positioned facing outward from the corner at the far end of the long rectangular living room. The furniture was in disarray; couch and chair pushed askew along the walls, boxes of my brother’s belongings sat unpacked in the new surroundings.
“Let’s run get some paint,” I said. “I’ve got rollers and pads in the garage.”
It was a busy weekend at the big box hardware store and we sat on the display lawn furniture near the paint department, waiting our turn for the tone that would cover his surroundings to be blended and agitated.
“I’ve been thinking, I’ve got that old Isuzu Rodeo and it’s just sitting,” I said. “You need it to find a job, get to and from work.”
I circled the spare key off my key ring and tossed it to him. He regarded the key, holding it between his thumb and forefinger and then looked over at me.
“You don’t have to do this,” he said. “I’m used to taking the bus.”
“You should go make copies of the car key and the spare house key while we’re waiting.”
Jayson nodded and stepped away slowly into the store. I saw in him that day, and occasionally into the early summer months, sparks of what John Keats tried to explain to his own brother about his idea of Negative Capability — the idea that a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Yet Jayson continued to reach for alcohol when the struggle with his own facts and reasons overtook him.
After his room was painted, he set about putting his belongings in order. A shelf unit held his paperback copies of On The Road and Yonder Stands Your Orphan, DVD’s of When Harry Met Sally and The Getaway, toiletries and a scattering of unframed pictures. The top pictures showed Renee asleep on a couch, another had Jayson smiling, turning burgers on a grill in the back yard, and finally, a sonogram of Chloe in utero. A small dresser held his folded clothes and a clock radio that I gave him sat on top reminding him when to get up, get the day started and of the hours that passed by each day.
“Time and distance,” I said to him. “It’s all you need. That and diversions, like the float trip.”
Jayson had agreed a few weeks before when I suggested he come along with me and my friends on our yearly float trip down the Elk River, just above Noel, Missouri.
“A little strange will help me forget,” he said.
“You don’t believe that,” I said.
“Sure I do,” he said. “Just need somebody I can talk to long enough, show the fresh paint in my bedroom to, put my dick in and then drop off when I’m done.”
“That’s pretty misogynistic, bro.” A new facet emerged that I’d never seen before in my brother’s behavior.
“That’s life,” he said. “We all get screwed in some way.”
“Jesus, you brought a lot of shit,” Jayson said as we unloaded the camping gear from the back of my truck.
In front of us, ready to be unloaded, were two coolers, the smaller one for food, the larger one for alcohol, were surrounded by a camp stove, two tents, an inflatable mattress, several bundles of firewood, a hand axe, three camp chairs, two padded chairbacks for the canoe, fishing poles, a tacklebox, a Coleman lantern, a metal can of Coleman fuel, a flat of water, Nalgene bottles for mixed drinks, a camp box with cooking pots, utensils and dry groceries, and a duffel full of clothes for our weekend at our temporary river home.
“What’s this?” he asked, picking up a translucent blue plastic box. Attached to the box was a thick rubber lanyard with a snap ring on the end, a lightweight version of the D-rings used in rappelling. He popped open the two latches on the lid and fingered the seal encircling the opening of the box.
“It’s a dry box,” I said. “You put everything you don’t want to lose in it. Cell phone, wallet, cigs & lighters, car keys, whatever’s important – that’s what goes in there.”
I showed Jayson how you attach the snap ring to the canoe brace or your belt loop, so if you get swamped out nothing valuable is lost.
“Got enough room in there for my stuff too?” he asked.
I nodded and we spent the next few hours setting camp. By the time we finished, our cohorts that hadn’t taken Friday off, started arriving, pitching tents and cracking beers.
“Where’s Alison?” was the question asked repeatedly that first night by the others in our camping party. I told them what she had told me: “I’ll be there as soon as I finish the mural.” Alison had taken on the commission and had pushed the completion date twice. Now she was scrambling to get the painting finished and promised to get to the Elk River when she could, if she could.
Anytime that Jayson heard the question posed to me, he felt the need to interject. As the night went on, his comments became more acerbic.
“She’d be here if she really wanted to.” “She’s not coming.” “Women, pfft.”
The men would laugh, nod heads in agreement and cut sideways glances at their women, to make sure they weren’t in dutch with them; the women wouldn’t pay attention, except to chide Jayson for being a jackass.
I sat up until 2 a.m., occasionally texting with Alison, and keeping watch until all the members of our group made their way to their different shelters. Jayson was the last to stumble into his tent.
Worked late. Can’t make it for the float tomorrow morning, but I’ll drive over to stay Saturday night, Alison’s text read. Promise. ☺ ❤
I snuffed the campfire and called it a night.
The next morning we made a group decision to take the long float, eight miles. When the river is high and running fast, it takes six hours from the time you drop in until you drag the canoe onto the banks of the pickup point. We put into the slow current at 9am. As we had done on past float trips, we lashed three of the four canoes in our party together, creating a barge that took the skills of only the two men in the rear seats of the outside canoes to navigate. Jayson sat in the forward position of our canoe. The leisure of the forward seat afforded him the opportunity to do nothing but drink, offer occasional steerage when needed, and plenty of banter with others we encountered.
By noon we had travelled only just over two miles. We stopped on a convenient bank to have lunch. I took my phone out of the dry box to check for messages or missed calls. The screen showed no signal, so I snapped a few photos of our group and the others gathered at the point we stopped on. I turned the phone off to save battery life, closed it back inside the box, fished out my Nalgene bottle of cranberry and vodka from the cooler and took a long pull.
“No word from your woman,” Jayson asked. He had a pleased look on his face.
“No signal,” I said.
“Well, they never give signals,” he said. “They just make their decisions.”
“Right,” I said, turning away from him and toward the group. “Let’s head out.” We shoved back into the river toward home.
By 3pm we had made our way past the low bridge, the drop point for the shorter five mile float and the intermittent grumbling began that we should have signed up for that trip instead.
“You don’t see as many tits on that trip,” Jayson said. He had come prepared with party beads draped around his neck, the kind you see during Mardi Gras being thrown to women who bare their breasts just to get the colorful, shiny plastic necklaces. These same rules apply every weekend on the Elk River.
Eight hours into the trip, we made our last stop before home. It was 5pm. Those of us who had travelled the river before made our predictions that we still had about two hours to go. I picked up the dry box to check my phone for a signal and noticed water collected in the corners inside of it. I opened it and took out the phone and powered it up. After a minute of waiting, the touch screen lit up, scrambled and locked up.
“What the fuck?” I looked at Jayson. He stood by the water’s edge, taking a drag of his cigarette and had that same pleased look on his face again.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Water, that’s what’s wrong,” I said. “Two more hours of water to get home, water in the dry box, water in my phone.”
“I was getting my smokes out,” he said. “Must’ve gotten wet then.”
“Alison’s on her way,” I said. “I didn’t tell her which campground to come to and we should’ve been back two hours ago.”
“That’s your bad,” he said. “She ain’t coming anyways.”
“If she really wanted to be here with you, she’d be here, but she ain’t.”
Fights never really start because of what what’s happening at the time of the fight. They start because of what’s been brewing for a while. It is about something else, something bigger. And what’s been fermenting, whatever has put a person on the fight, is like an angry kid kicking at the gravel inside their head.
I stepped down the bank and faced him at the water’s edge.
“Don’t do this,” I said. “Don’t project your bullshit on me. You won’t like what comes back.”
“You won’t do anything about it,” Jayson said. “You never do.”
We stood assessing each other. Jayson and I had never had a physical altercation. Growing up, me being the oldest, he being the youngest, my job was to look out for him, keep him protected, no matter what he may have done to light the fuse of a fight.
“Pussy,” Jayson said.
A chest bump and a head butt pulled us toward each other.
When we were boys, when Jayson was six years old, he was considered small for his age. Our parents took him to several doctors to seek their advice on getting him up to a normal weight and height. The doctors told us that underweight children are usually more prone to disease and infection as they normally lack the natural vitamins, minerals and proteins to help their body effectively fight off any serious threats, but that a number of children are simply born underweight. While most of them will gradually bulk up to the standard size, others may not do so due to slower metabolic rates and lack of appetite. So Jayson wasn’t made to feel different than the rest of the family, we all began taking multi-vitamins and zinc supplements. Within a year he was up to a normal weight and nearly measured a normal height for age seven. Now as grown men, Jayson and I, with five years difference in age, squared off at roughly the same height and weight.
Fists against jaws knocked us apart and into the water, cooling our anger.
The other men in the group rushed to keep us separated; the women told us we were scaring them. Back on our feet, Jayson and I regarded each other, no anger, no confusion, only a flash of regret.
“Thank you,” Jayson said to me, looking downward, then toward me.
“What?” I asked.
“For standing up to me,” he said. “I was out of line. I was pushing your buttons because I got your back, because I don’t want you to get hurt by Alison. I love you bro.”
In that moment, I remembered the small boy he once was, the brother I was to always stand up for.
“I know you do,” I said. “I love you too, man.”
Jayson and I cut our canoe loose from the group, initially gliding away slowly, and then, without words to orchestrate, we sank our paddles deep into the river, and pulled with resolve, cutting a path toward home, an echoing wake opening behind us.