My brother was to arrive on the 7:59 flight from LaGuardia. It was not a happy occasion that was bringing Louis back to the home he had rejected ten years before but had never been able to evade. Our mother had died of a heart attack that had taken her suddenly during the night.
Mom had remarried less than a year after her divorce. She had married our father at the age of nineteen. Neither of them had been ready. Our father had fooled around. The divorce had left Mom alone for the first time in her life, alone with two young boys to support. She’d struggled to make a home for us, earning meager wages during the day as a typist, and rushing home exhausted at night to the tiny apartment where the two of us would be waiting, wailing for our dinners. At night I would often hear her weeping drift softly through the stillness of the apartment. Lying in bed, the darkness enveloping her, her thoughts could only turn to how cruel Fate had been to her, shattering her dreams of happiness and security at the tender age of twenty-eight. She had quickly accepted Edward’s stammering words of proposal, hoping that Fate had seen its mistake and would return her to the Happy Home she so justly deserved.
Louis had never forgiven her.
As I sat in my waiting chair, watching the metallic birds squeal and ease into the airport, I remembered all the pleading long distance calls Mom had made to Louis while I was still living under my parents’ protective roof. I remembered the tears that had glistened on her cheeks as she’d held the phone away from her ear and he’d shouted: “I don’t owe you or anyone anything! Why can’t you just leave me alone!” I remembered how Louis had been my personal protector after our parents’ divorce. I remembered the sullen look on his face after our father dropped us off after one of his rare Sunday visits. I remembered the dinners with Edward, Mom, Louis and Ellen, our stepsister, a year younger than me, how my brother would run from the table and slam the door to his room behind him, not pretending to hide his disrespect for the man who had tried to fill our father’s shoes.
I had been in the habit of writing to Louis for brotherly advice, but had broken off communications with him at the age of twenty-two, after receiving an angry letter from him, telling me to grow the fuck up, that I’d better work it out on my own, that he had his own life to worry about, and I should worry about mine. I was shocked, hurt, and didn’t write back to him after that – he had become a man I did not know.
The telegram had been my first words to Louis in over six years.
I tried to reassure myself, ease my nerves a bit as I watched the shaggy-haired, frail memory of my youth, come down the boarding ramp. “We’re both older now, more reasonable people,” I said to myself, under my breath, trying to convince myself of the truth in these words. But Louis looked as if he hadn’t changed. His bushy hair and wild beard were much the same as they’d been the last time I’d seen him, during his graduate days at Yale. His baggy Levis could have been the same pair he’d work six years before, constantly threatening to fall from his waistline. No ass, he had never had an ass.
He held his hand out stiffly. “How are you, Martin?” I avoided the hand and went for the bags. His eyes darted around, checking out the crowd.
As we threaded our way through the terminal, I made an attempt at small talk. “How are things at the University?… How’s the weather in New York?… How was your flight in?”
“Awful, just awful,” Louis’ voice squealed. “The man beside me kept smoking this big black cigar. I asked him nicely to put it out, it was a no-smoking section, but that did no good. I called the waitress three times to make him put it out, that bitch, and she didn’t do a goddamned thing! That bastard just smiled at me and blew smoke in my direction intentionally! And the dinner was terrible. There was enough mercury in that tuna salad, I’ll be lucky if I don’t have mercury poisoning. I’ll be damned if they think they’re going to get my money on the flight back. I’ll take another airline, and if I can’t do that I’ll take the train if I have to.” He was mumbling more to himself in his agitated state than to me, chewing on a ragged thumbnail as we walked. The bags were getting heavy.
After a brief stop at his motel, we drove to our childhood house in silence. I turned up the radio to fill the void, daring not to look Louis directly in the face. I imagined him staring at me with those piercing eyes of his, but, catching a glimpse of him from the corner of my eye, saw him staring absently out the window.
When we arrived at the house our stepsister, Ellen, was at the door to greet us. She took Louis’ coat, and hugged him as he stood rigidly. I listened to the mumbling sound of voices that came from the other room.
As Louis and I stood in the doorway to the living room, the eyes slowly turned toward us. There were murmured hellos and apologies directed toward me. The faces were all familiar yet distant. My mother’s only brother came to the doorway and put his arm around my shoulder. I could see he’d been crying. His breath smelled of scotch. He consciously removed his arm after a minute or so and looked hazily into my eyes, saying, “It’s a sad, sad day for all of us, Martin, a sad day. She was a good woman. She deserved better.” He shot a piercing look at Louis who had not budged from the doorway. Louis’ eyes seemed to be probing the walls for a way out. Uncle Jake’s eyes burned into my brother’s flesh. Louis jittered nervously, evading my uncle’s glance and searching for that ragged thumbnail.
Edward was sitting limply in a chair, his head in his hands. “He’s bad, Martin. Real bad,” my uncle whispered in my ear. “The doctor gave him some pills, sedatives. It’s all they could do. He was threatening to hurt himself.”
Ellen had her arms around Edward. “You’ve got to eat something, Dad.” Edward didn’t respond. Uncle Jake took me by the arm. “Let me fix you a drink.” He pulled me downstairs to the bar.
He poured the gin with shaking hands. “What the hell did you bring him here for, Martin! He didn’t have the heart to come here all those years she called for him. Now you bring him after all these years, into this house….Your mother’ll roll over in her grave!”
“He came on his own. I didn’t force him to come.”
“What I can’t understand is why you even sent him a telegram. After what he did to your mother, not communicating to her, answering her letters, for…what…ten years? He didn’t deserve to know of her death. It was that bastard that killed her!”
I looked at Jake, wanting to despise him for his words. After all, Louis was my brother. But I couldn’t help thinking, maybe he was right. I finished my drink and poured myself another. Jake slipped by me in silence. I sat alone on a barstool, repeating my uncle’s words to myself. They were not new words. For the last ten years Edward, Jake, and my mother had all blamed Louis for her unhappiness. I closed my eyes, wanting to cry. Somewhere along the line I had forgotten how. The room grew cold as the mumbling sound of mourners returned to my ears.
I was walking back up the stairs when I heard the screams.
When I got to the top of the steps I saw Edward on top of Louis, in the middle of the living room floor, his hands clamped tight around my brother’s neck. Apparently he had lifted from his fog just long enough to recognize Louis’ face, after which he’d leapt across the room. Mouths were agape. No one moved. Jake stood above the two, holding onto his glass of scotch. Louis was kicking, choking for air. I ran in to pull Edward off of Louis, but, by the time I got there, Edward’s hands had grown limp. He was curled up on the floor, crying, “I don’t want to live, I don’t want to live.” Ellen helped him up and brought him upstairs. Louis was on his feet, enraged. “He’s crazy, Martin! Let me out of here. I won’t spend another minute in this house with him. He thinks it was me who killed her, but it was him! He’s a lunatic! He tried to kill me!”
I pulled Louis roughly by the arm and dragged him outside. “What’s wrong with you? Didn’t you feel a thing for her?” They were my eyes burning into Louis now.
“Drive me to the motel, Martin. Just drive me to the motel!”
The funeral was the next morning. Ellen and I had stayed at the house to watch over Edward. It was Ellen, more than I, who did the watching. I couldn’t quite believe Mom had died. There was a strange silence about the house but that was all. Ellen had stayed up most of the night with Edward while I’d lain in the bed of my childhood, staring at the ceiling, wondering why this house had always seemed so cold.
Before the funeral, I drove to the motel where the clerk gave me the word. “Mr. Ludlin’s checked out, Sir.”
“Are you sure? Louis Ludlin?”
“Yes, sir, he checked out late last night.”
At the cemetery, Ellen helped Edward toward the grave. I surveyed the crowd of mourners. Some nodded, some cried. As the rabbi started his tributes to God and Mom I stared into the opened plot, the casket propped above, waiting for the proper signal. The crowd hushed as the casket slowly began to descend into the earth. A lone wail broke through the still fall air. I turned my head to the sound. There stood Louis, outside the circle of mourners, howling like a wounded animal. Then he was silent, and seemed to stumble to the ground. The crowd turned toward him. I tried to break my way through the crowd, urgently rushing to get to my brother, but the arms and legs around me resisted my movement. I grew angry, pushing past the bodies, throwing them back until I was outside the circle, at the spot where my brother had been.
The taxicab pulled away, my brother bent over in the back seat, as I caught my last glimpse of my brother, Louis.
Mitchell Waldman is the author of the short story collection, Petty Offenses and Crimes of the Heart (Wind Publications, 2011). His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including, among others, The Brooklyn Voice, The Big Stupid Review, Troubadour 21, eFiction Magazine, Milk Sugar, Pulse Literary Journal, Litsnack, Red Fez, The Houston Literary Review, Wind Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Journal, Eclectic Flash, The Battered Suitcase, and HazMat Review. He is also the author of the novel, A Face in the Moon, and serves as Fiction Editor for Blue Lake Review. (For more info, see his website at http://mitchwaldman.homestead.com).