Pallbearer

E. G. Fabricant

 

From Matters Familiar. Two boys, one mother; two lives, separated from birth.

 

Harry clamped his arms around Hank’s waist as much as their bulky clothing permitted and sucked in a breath. He buried his cheek in big brother’s shoulder blade, knocking his leather visor askew and filling his inside eye with a damp lambs-wool earflap. He knew he’d be mocked, but it would be worth it. He liked the sensation of falling blind but was desperate for the closeness.

“Ready, ‘Freddy?’ Twenty-three skidoo!”

Hank jerked up his left galosh. The Flexible Flyer shot forward before he could plant the foot on the steering bar; his leg flailed upward, knocking his balance to starboard. They both heaved instinctively off their right buttocks. As they shuddered to the left, Hank saw the half-bare boulder, dead-legged on the right, and set his free boot into position. The left runner fell and bit into the snow and they regained the fall line. Down they hurtled, hitting successive ridges and getting more air with each one as their velocity increased. His legs pinned securely to the seat planks by his brother’s rigid arms, Harry marveled in the weightless intervals and squealed at each impact. The angle started to come out of the hill. Harry grinned to himself in anticipation.

Here it comes!

Hank tapped out the first feint on the steering bar; the only remaining mystery was, How many this time?The answer? One—but on the same side. He punched his right leg out hard and buried their craft’s front edge into a wet drift. The sled bucked and launched them into a crazy arc like a collapsing seesaw. After a clinging aerial somersault they tumbled head over teakettle to a stop, just short of an icy stump. Hank rolled gingerly off his little brother and they lay on their backs, two heaps of sweaty flesh in sodden wool, framed by snow. They stared skyward through spindly aspen branches at the leaden sky as their heart rates subsided. Slowly, their heads rolled toward one another.

Harry’s eyes shone. “Are we dead?”

Hank feigned seriousness. “Pert near.”

They erupted, laughing like maniacs. Perfect! Harry basked in the unfettered affection, wishing it could endure. He stopped first to savor the sound of Hank’s last few huh-huh-huhs until there was silence. Suddenly, there was his brother’s ruddy face above him, at the other end of a dangling scarf and beyond his extended hand.

“Whaddya say, short-stuff? Once more—in front, this time?” Hank’s eyes narrowed in mocking mirth. “Or…”

Harry stifled himself and reached for the hand. Wait for it…

Hank hoisted him until their faces were inches apart. “…Are you a ‘FRAIDY-CAT?!’”

Giggling, Harry pushed at Hank’s face and replied with equal force. “YESSS!”

“That’s what I thought!” Hank really tried to force some contempt into it this time, but as always it didn’t take. He brushed at the crystalline cakes clinging to his brother’s back then stood apart to get his bearings. He arched his back and looked skyward, wiping clear mucous from his upper lip with a drenched mitten.

“Better get on home—light’s goin’.”

Harry looked down at steel buckles and black rubber. “Aw—What for?”

The elder Martz examined their “combined” Christmas present with satisfaction; it was his brother who wanted it more, but no chance with Ma that way. He took his case straight to the court of appeals and, in a rare published opinion, Pa took his side. He dug for the Flyer’s rope and slung it over his shoulder as he groped for the seven-year-old’s hand. They trudged out of the blanketed meadow and slipped into the carved ruts on the road downhill. As they crunched along, Hank’s eyes wandered westward and up the silver and aquamarine shoulders of the peak named for Zebulon Pike that dominated their town. He stopped, nearly yanking Harry off his encumbered feet. He scowled.

“What are you doing?”

Hank’s mouth hung slightly open; he shook his head slightly.

“Nothin’. Just thinkin’.”

“’Bout what?”

“Drivin’ up the Pike in an auto-mobile—goin’ real fast. Thirty, maybe forty miles to the hour.”

“Aw, g’wan.”

“Yes, sir—you’ll see. Gonna be in Mr. Penrose’s ‘Hill Climb’ one day.” He put his hands on his knees and peered into Harry’s face. “Got to dream, little brother. Don’t you have a dream?”

Harry bit his lip and stared back. Yes, big brother, I do. You can’t understand.

Hank shrugged. “Let’s get crackin’.”

Just behind twilight and barely ahead of curfew, the pair clambered onto the rough-sawn planks of the back porch and struggled with their overshoe clasps. They freed themselves by stomping on alternate heels and burst through the kitchen door. Dodging hips and elbows in the space between the wall and the glowing cast-iron stove, they doffed, unwound, and yanked until their outer garments dangled from pegs. Their order was as good as could be expected from hungry, exhausted males their age.

Mutter Florenz came out of the pantry into the spare electric light with two jars of spiced peaches. There they stood, their tousled sandy hair and crimson extremities each five points of contrast with their bleached, steaming long-handles. Her straight gash of a mouth lifted perceptibly at a corner.

“Heinrich!” She strode over and laid her fingers against her firstborn’s cheek. “You must be frozen. Quickly—get your bath before you catch your death.”

Hank turned his face upward. “Where’s Pa?”

“He’s in the parlor, reading his paper.” She rubbed her upper arm absently. “He’s upset about the War. Let’s not bother him, all right?”

She smiled as he passed and watched him pad into the hallway. As she turned back her face fell and hardened.

“Pick up your hat, Harold,” she said flatly. “And straighten up those clothes; they’re a disgrace.” She cuffed his ear sharply with her fingers. “Schnell! Quickly!”

Harry rubbed the sting out of his ear as he bent down, not daring to look at her standing over him, her hands on her hips.

Hank sat in his flannel nightshirt, aimlessly swinging his bare legs over the edge of the bed, when Harry came in from his tepid bath swaddled in Hank’s too-big cast-off. He walked around to his side, pulled back the covers, and slid in. Hank swung himself onto the mattress.

“Ain’t you goin’ to say your prayers?”

Harry look at him askance. “To who?”

“God, stoopid.”

“You know what I mean. Ma heard yours—I seen her in here.”

Hank beckoned with his finger. “C’mon, get up. I’ll hear ‘em. C’mon. You don’t want to go to Hell, do you?”

“Who says I ain’t already there?” Harry muttered. He labored up to his knees, folded his hands, and began a dispirited recitation. Hank’s hand rested on his shoulder. Harry finished, crossed himself, and sank back into bed. Sliding in behind him, Hank encircled his bony waist with his arm.

“She don’t mean it, Harry. Not really.”

Harry blinked at the frost-painted panes and waited for sleep to come.

A fog of perspiration and the odor of chipping varnish filled the nostrils of the spectators huddled in the frigid, poorly-lit gymnasium. After the referee raised and released his leaden arm, Harry used it to peel off his leather headgear and slogged off the mat. His coach clapped his shoulders as he threw the heavy gray warm-up over them. The warrior found the family in the bleachers and climbed wearily to them. Wilhelm Martz stood stiffly and extended his hand.

“Excellent…” He frowned a little, furrowing his brow.

Harry gulped a breath and gripped his father’s palm. “Match, Pa.”

“Yes – match. Prima.” Wilhelm leaned away as his wife burst through and seized Hank’s face with both hands.

“Heinrich!” She gave him the full once-over. “Are you all right?”

“’Course, Ma – I won!”

“It’s just – I worry so that you will be hurt, Mein Liebshen.”

“Aw – it’s real safe, Ma; and my third straight.” Hank looked between them at Harry and winked. “Think I’m goin’ to regionals this year! Well; gotta get back to the team, I guess.” He peeled off, the slaps of his sneakers’ rubber soles on the bleacher seats echoing off the enameled block walls. As his father sat, Harry jumped to the seat in front of him and bounced on his toes.

“Can I go out next year, Pa? Huh?”

Florenz pushed derisively at the boy’s shoulder and spoke before her husband could. “Don’t be silly. You’re not as athletic as your brother and too small, anyway – you would just get hurt.”

Wilhelm flicked his eyes at Harry, then quickly away. “We’ll see, boy. Come – let’s go to wait for Hank.”

Hank buttoned the dull black gabardine gown to his neck. Turning to the bureau mirror, he set the mortarboard on his head at a jaunty angle. He whirled airily and thrust his arms out.

“Wottya think?”

Propped against the headboard, Harry peeped through his crossed shoes at the foot of the bed, folded his arms, and emitted a low wolf-whistle for effect. “Cat’s meow, Mister Engineer. You decided where you’re taking this degree yet?”

“Best response I’ve gotten so far is from the IRT back east.”

“Where’s that?”

“New York City – ‘Interborough Rapid Transit Authority.’ Imagine—me bein’ a NooYawkuh!”

“Huh-huh. Doing what?”

“Cofferdams and subways, I think.”

“Government job?”

“Well, yes—City and County of.”

“It’s 1929, brother. Capitalism and private enterprise are all the rage; haven’t you heard? Jeez—didn’t you ever take an economics class?”

“Wall Street itself’s lookin’ a little fragile these days, ‘Frosh.’” Hank pointed, with playful purpose. “You might have taken a little more in civics and public affairs—you and your ‘captains of industry’ heroes.”

Harry sniffed. “Oh, yeah; so I could carry on like you and your ‘Red’ pals.”

“Hey—Russia wasn’t the only country born out of revolution, you know.”

Harry yawned, and scratched. “You can keep your ‘Quo vadis?’ Three more years of academic slavery and I’m on my way—finding my fortune in the big ‘burg.”

 

Like What You’ve Read?

Click on your vendor’s link above to buy this story in your favorite format!