Two brothers, set on course to confront their estrangement after the death of their bitter, domineering mother…
That’s the theme of “Gemini,” from my first short-story collection, MATTERS FAMILIAR. (Sounds a little like Tuesday’s sample from “Pallbearer,” except it’s a generation later and different circumstances drive the dynamic.) Jim‘s and Cary‘s father’s death from cancer in their teenage years is the catalyst for their two-decade drift; Cary’s disintegrating life shatters the safety of their mutual refuge in distance.
Read the sample below and the full story to learn where they’re lead–links to follow.
Everyone had since pushed away from the decimated bird and congealing side dishes and collapsed in gluttonous disrepair around the house. That, football, and the mostly temporary gender détente of shared tasks made it Thanksgiving. Balmy from equal parts Chardonnay and the pleasant anesthesia of shared company and comfort food, Jim and Teri started shifting the carnage from dining room to kitchen. Entertaining taught them that a decent interval before dessert and coffee seemed less like piling on. Today, it made a serviceable excuse to let the charge in the air die away. Rhett, their fourteen-year-old, wandered in.
“Things calmed down any out there?”
“Yeah, Dad. Uncle Cary’s working Rory over pretty good right now. Something about the ratio of malt and hops to barley in most microbrews.”
“Just what every eleven-year-old jock needs to know. Was he all over your new Strat and your CD collection?”
Rhett stiff-armed a countertop, raising his feet off the floor. “Uh-huh. That, and the lecture about the role of live music in bringing balance to a working man’s life.” He watched the heels of his hands go white. “He’s gonna take me blues-clubbing in the city when I’m old enough.” He smiled slyly. “Maybe before.”
“Peachy—as long as you’re old enough to drive, because you’ll wind up having to.”
Rhett’s stepmother circled behind him, balancing half-bowls of potatoes and dressing, and matter-of-factly blew at the thick hair fraying the nape of his neck. Surprised, he dropped and slapped away a spasm of pleasure. Jim took it all in, with satisfaction. Teri left for another round-trip. Rhett found a green bean and dipped it into a nearby glob of cold Durkee’s onion pudding. He munched, seriously; Jim shuddered.
“Dad, can I ask you something?”
“Why do you and he always get into it?”
Jim stopped slicing, released the turkey medallions onto the foil, and tapped the carving knife’s tang on the cutting board, softly. “You know, son, I have no answer. Lots of working theories.”
“How about, ‘because we’re brothers?’”
Jim grinned. Rhett couldn’t separate his father’s congenital gift for sarcasm from defensiveness. It wasn’t material. Either way, good or bad, it was usually about deflection. “Oh, I get it—like Rory and me?”
“But you two are old, so testosterone and immaturity are no longer issues. Right?”
“So, you’re saying Theory Number One is bogus?”
“Well, then—there’s genes. History. Presence. Absence. Admiration. Jealousy. Theories Two through Seven—in no particular order.”
Rhett frowned. “Explain, please.”
Jim draped an arm around the boy’s shoulders. “Remember what Gramma—my Mother—was like when she lived here?”
“In a word—exactly. So, we’ve both got that going for us. But she wasn’t always like that—at least, for me.”
“She was barely 40 when my Dad died. Cary was 12. They both really needed him around then, in spite of themselves, and neither ever forgave him for leaving them.”
“How was it different for you?”
“When I was younger and Cary and Laura weren’t much more than babies, she wasn’t like that. There was at least as much sunshine as lightning. My Dad and I grew close, starting when I was about your age. Thinking back, Mom was menopausal or depressed, or both, and I was old enough to be emotionally available. Anyway, she’d get crazy and he’d run interference for the three of us.” He gave Rhett the once-over. “‘Paging Doctor Freud!’ Aren’t you bored yet?”
Rhett swallowed. “No.”
“Damn it! Well, Dad was diagnosed when I was 18 and away at college—end of my freshman year. Wasted away in under six weeks. Mom was nuts the whole time. I remember standing by his bed, that last day. He and I made our peace, alone, before the delirium set in, so I was more or less a bystander by then. Little Laura couldn’t really process any of it. Cary, though—bright, sensitive Cary—was aware enough to be panicked. When Dad went, he blurted out something like, ‘Well, that’s it!’ Mom just went black, and turned on him.”
“Wow. What did you do?”
“Nothing. Everything after that is a blur. I was still stupidly adolescent enough that my grief came out selfishly, as anger. I had a summer job lined up, so I made tracks. Finished college and law school got married. Left those two alone. With her.”
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