by Joseph Witkowski

The rich and the promiscuous have always been ready to match antagonism with heartache. So says the Good Book, well, books that are better than most. It is easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jason had only seen camels at zoos and there they seem even less motivated to try anything out of the ordinary. He was sitting in a well sequestered booth at the route 44 all-night diner staring across the table at his younger brother Eric, thin, gaunt, well fleshed out under a Britche’s spring ensemble and a new haircut. Jason didn’t even have a bed, he slept on a blow up air mattress with a slow leak. Eric sipped his coffee, steady and easy, with the grace of Tibetan Monk. The man was two years beneath his brother and twice as ambitious, or what passes for ambition in Middle America. Eric had always played Sherlock to Jason’s Mycroft and Jason never protested. He on the other hand, would never let a word go unanswered. Jason watched his brother turn to the waitress as she skitted by to holler in a slightly unreasonable tone for a refill. He’d had been staring down at his plate of scattered cheese hash browns and marmalade toast for somewhat close to a half and hour trying not to pick a fight. Jason’s company had been known in fairer circles to create an air of tension, the kind felt at interventions and netless circus acts. Today he was opting for mellow and hoping for insight. The funeral was that morning, and the taste in his mouth was still crawling between his teeth.
“I’m moving to Baltimore,” Eric stated as if before the press.
“My wife wants kids, she wants a family, a nice neighborhood, a mortgage, maybe a garden. Like a normal life.”
Jason finally looked up from his congealing wood pulp and forced eye contact.
“That’s great, I mean it sounds great. You guys seem like you could use a change.”
“Yes, we could,” Eric reported, “My job’s not going anywhere, she’s sick of school, apparently had been convincing herself that she wanted to be an academic of some sort.”
"Anthropology, right?” Christ, this was like Jeopardy.
“Economics.” A nice curt correction. “You never visit.”
“I never want to.”
“Well at least you’re honest, I don’t think Jane likes you anyway.”
Jason let loose a fake nod and pondered, “that must be his wife’s name, or maybe a pet. Let it go.” Eric seemed agitated to him now. Jason started shifting in his seat, picking up the dairy dispenser and moving it a half inch across the table to some more aesthetic position.
“What’s your plan?” Eric asked very sportsman like.
“Yeah, you know. A plan: a set of goals, strategically arranged to facilitate one’s intended purpose in life.”
“I’m a clerk, I’ll keep being a clerk.”
“You still work at that gas station?”
Don’t take the bait, Grasshopper, let it lie.
“If you can call it work, It’s more like baby sitting, with fumes.”
“Is that what you want to do for the rest of your life?” he said, adopting his favorite hackneyed tone of voice.
“I don’t know, no one’s told me how long that’s supposed to be.”
, “Apparently.”
Jason sipped his coffee again and decided to light a another cigarette and pick a tree outside. He wasn’t really annoyed yet but he could see why they hadn’t traded thoughts with this ponce in over three years. He suddenly flashed to their childhood. That near fist fight with our father when his team lost to Penn State. His broken ankle after diving off the cliff on that highway overlook in Yakima. The two of them discovering masturbation across the hallway in our respective bedroom/salons.
They had grown up in a small town house near the Boston Common, their father was a dreadfully earnest middle class mason, owned and ran a construction company and always broke even. The woman he married was as gentile a southern socialite as they come. By the time Eric and he were on their teens, their mother’s inheritance partitioned into numerous stock portfolios had given them a butler, a houseboat and a well rounded Decalogue of Catholic guilt. Jason remembered going to Church every Sunday. Their mother was raised Baptist but converted when she married her rugged new Gaelic beau. She used to giggle at the rituals and sacraments, the wine and the crackers and the shit load of purple. Her name was June.
“How long can you stay in town?” Eric said, interrupting Jason’s flashback.
“A week. I’m not sure how long I can hold out with the rest of the family, I can’t remember half their bloody names, and the ones I do, I remember for unpleasant reasons. I have to take a shit,” punctuating the moment by dramatically throwing his napkin on the table.
“Thanks for sharing.”
“Hey, if you think that’s sharing, wait till you see what I bring you when I get back.” He meandered past the patrons and into a dimly lit blue and onyx men’s room too close to the kitchen. As soon as the door squeezed itself shut he put his hands up on the wall and breathed in stale excrement-scented air. “Breathe, motherfucker, breathe,” he said quietly. He felt the cold sweat pooled on his eyebrows and was thankful he was alone, not staring at his brother’s tight-fisted grins and pock-marked face.
“Why wasn’t Gabriel at the funeral?” he thought to himself. Gabriel was the eldest brother, three years before him. He had run off to be a performance artist In New York, a pretty good one if you read the Times Sunday Lifestyle’s section, and hey, who doesn’t? “He knew I needed him there.” He was almost thinking out loud, or perhaps being able to distinguish between inner and outer monologues was finally out of his reach. “Christ he was lucky to get the hell out of that house so early, before Dad started drinking again.” Gabriel was twice his age when it came to maturity, which put Jason at about eleven, but he had been a better younger brother than that prig out there. Jason couldn’t handle the flesh sometimes. Too distinct, too documenting.
Jason turned to the mirror and stared at his raccoon eyes offset by an alabaster face and long red locks. He hadn’t slept in four days and when he had his dreams were apparently being run by his gas station manager . He felt a twitch in his temple as a tear of sweat finally hurdled a section of eyebrow. The worse thing about seeing dead relatives is the fact that they look like him in some way, a nose, a widow’s peak, some feature handed down in the generations of inbreeding. Not that Jason could ever accept the well nurtured theories of heredity, that one’s physicality was nothing more than second hand clothes. Jason always felt as if his father had inherited his eyes, pale blue eyes that were too sensitive to ever be of use on an angry face, and had always flared weakness in front of the wrong people. He reached into his coat pocket for his eye glass case and dug out the small container of pills inside. Heart medication. Arrhythmia, feels like your damn arms are being pulled from their sockets. He popped em’ and reached down to sip brown water from the tap. He could smell the mucus lined sink counter top and it made his stomach wince, or maybe that was just him. “The wake was gonna be a nightmare,” he thought, “fucking Irish bastard, why couldn’t he have been lost at sea, people say when someone goes missing it feels worse than being able to know that they’re dead. Fuck that, I’d rather he was swept away from a sinking 747 on a pile of seat cushions. I could spend the rest of my life imagining him landing on a deserted island, building tree houses and tree garages and teaching a clan of spider monkeys how to jig.”
He stared up at the ceiling and thought about his insides, the 7 pints of blood rushing through him, soaking every organ, the oxygen barely making it in and out of his lungs. They say that the heart has a certain pre-defined number of beats it will make, programmed into it in the womb. But you can speed up and slow down those beats, and that is the only control you have over your time. His head cleared, the three people staring back at him in the mirror suddenly became one. He started thumbing the slice inside his eye glass case which had formed a nice hidden pocket. “Well at least your off the coke now genius,” he thought to himself, “It sucks you can’t take pride in pursuing a health way of life. There’s no sense of accomplishment in not doing stupid things.” He missed the instant albeit short lived clarity. He packed up his gear, wetted his hair and strutted out the door just as a busboy came into to not wash his hands.
Back to square one.
“You know what I’m thinking about?” Eric posed, as his brother sat down. Jason was afraid he’d mention Jane, who, as Jason’s jolted memory now recalled, had actually fornicated with during a misshapen drunken evening three weeks after the wedding.
“I’m thinking of Gabriel and you. You left so easily, ya know, we turned around and you were out the door, I remember Mom crying for at least a week-“
“Mom hated us in that house, she hated the shitty proletariat she married and she resented the dinner parties, what are you kidding?”
“You talk like you know them.”
“They told me stuff, they talked to me in a way they could never talk to you, Mom hated having children, watching her Scarlet O’ Hare hips go. You know how many different people were paid to wipe our asses because she wouldn’t? She used to talk shit about her white trash family with her country club philistines, she’d tear us all down to get a rise out of it, I saw her do it a thousand times. She cheated on him constantly. He knew and he never lifted a finger to make a point.”
“Do you even respect the fact that they were family?”
“That’s great, Eric, really, but you know what, I’m not in the mood to reminisce right now. Why don’t you take over for a while? You’re better at it than me.”
“Fine.” He stood up and threw a measly tip on the table. “When your moods fall into line, you let me know, now let me drive you back to the fuckin motel.”
“Eric, wait, fuck.” Eric was already in the parking lot before Jason could find the other sleeve of his coat.
Jason was about to stand up and start the chase but he suddenly felt annoyed, indifferent to the poor bastard. He remembered the time when they were ten and eight, playing their own version of baseball in their backyard. 10 points for a window, 20 points for a windshield and the neighbor’s greenhouse: a grand slam. Jason’s hands were sweaty and at one point he let the bat fly. It hit Eric in the shins and busted his kneecap. He was crying for twenty minutes and Jason didn’t feel a inch of remorse, he just laughed the entire time. His dad kicked the shit out of him that night and never looked back. Why is it when a father hits you it feels clean, almost exhilarating. Like you’re finally getting to see such an unnatural man do such a natural thing? Get angry-break things, this is what we all want to do. It’s always good to see the king on the throne take a shit every now and then, gives you an excuse.
Jason turned his head to the diner’s window and saw his brother in the driver’s seat of his car , his forehead resting on the top of the steering wheel.
The monologue was running into the third length.
“What are you waiting for motherfucker? Drive off. Go home, play Jesus. You know you wanna sit here and tally the fucking score, whose pain is worse, whose guilt is more fierce, who deserves the brass ring, and who should be at the ceremony serving drinks.”
Jason started drumming, the world was getting fish-eye and he wanted just to start walking and not stop til ocean blue and stinky crab. I was tired of faking sentiment. The man was a cipher, an excuse.
“I swear to god, if he doesn’t drive off soon, I’m gonna go out there and knuckle rape the dumb sunovabitch.”

He busted through he door and each thought counted off a step.

I’m sick of being of your pathetic anecdote.
I know you hate having brothers, you would have been a good only child.
Do you ever fall asleep to the idea that you’re not me?
Do you ever want to kill your wife?
I once punched a man in the kidneys for giving me incorrect change.
I think Dad was attracted to you sexually.
I’m never paying you back that loan so just start forgetting about it.
I pray that your shit falls apart so you’ll come to me for help.
I think you killed Dad.
I want to be free of all commitments, wake up in the morning and see
myself alone behind my own eyes.
I don’t believe in genetic destiny.
You’re losing your hair.
I’m losing my mind.

His heart valves were a vacuum. “Get out of the fucking car.” He stood in front of the rental almost egging him to run him over. “Get out of there you self-righteous inflammatory, meat eating, anti-labor, three piece suit, dog and slippers and petty bourgeois, can’t afford the prep schools, tax cheat motherfucker! You are not alone, that’s your whole fucking problem, you think you’re alone all the time, you think your actions affect only you, and the consequences are some kind of penance for a self sacrificing hard-ass.”
Jason was pacing and yelling, he felt the autumn touch the back of his neck beneath his overcoat and for a brief moment he was calm. Catharsis. He wanted to sum it all up in a few catch phrases but the best he could hope for was an all or nothing situation. He was fed up with believing he wasn’t what his father wanted him to be, that he was what his brother laughed at and pitied. He had gone his whole life inventing emotions so he could keep the originals for himself. He had become a pathological liar, although the kind where you know you are one and that’s all you know. Some people lie because they know what the truth really is, some people can’t tell anymore so the lying becomes pure survival instinct.
Jason strutted military style to the driver’s side and slammed his palm onto the glass, leaving an oily print.
“Roll down the goddamned window and talk to me or I’ll put my hand through it.” He yelled just loud enough so that the patrons started asking for refills. Eric, sat up and starred straight ahead. He seemed to be building resolve, or perhaps cautious optimism. After thirty seconds he rolled down the car window and looked up into the eyes of his brother, distant, hollow, post-manic.
“I never liked you, not as a brother, or as friend, not even as a total fucking stranger,” Eric said.
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“Okay, I wanted him dead,” Eric stated bluntly but wispfully,” I prayed for it sometimes, ran scenarios in my head all night, thought of this day like a fuck’n retirement. Now that it’s here, it feels like fucking astronaut weightlessness training.”
Jason stood back and looked over at a billboard on the interstate. LAS VEGAS, WHERE THE SLOTS ARE GOLDEN. “I guess confession trumps a fist fight,” he thought as he looked down at his brother and smirked.
“Come on, sit with me a minute,” Jason said as he already started walking.
Eric got out slowly and inauthentically sighed. They sat down in front of the car and rested the middle of their spines on the bumper. Jason reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of Winstons.
“Cigarette,” he offered.
“No, you know I don’t smoke.”
“Well you should think about starting. A long life can be very unhealthy for you.” Jason took a drag and felt his head swim.
“Look man, I never understood that guy. He was like a pristine chapel. You wash your hands when you go in and kneel when you’re supposed to, that was how he set it up. I knew from age six that the hugs weren’t coming in droves anytime soon. He wanted us to be better off than him, to make money, build a family, be reliable and stable and successful and all that shit. I knew I wasn’t gonna be able to pull it off. Fuck, theory, fuck opinion, the man wanted a legacy and he got mutation. What in God’s name made you stick around and be the good son and witness?”
“Everyone should have at least one” Eric snapped.
“Bullshit, some people deserve to lose their kids.” He said, taking another drag.
“What about me?”
“What about you?”
“Will I deserve to lose mine?”
“Probably, I’d get ready for it, why delude yourself with impossible missions? ”
Jason and Eric stared down the asphalt of the parking lot. They could see the underbellies of so many things, dog’s eye view of the world. Jason sat up momentarily and felt his diastolic go platinum. A sharp pain in his left arm and he gritted as if burning hot shrapnel had pierced his side. Eric looked over at him.
“What’s wrong?”
“It’s nothing, bad clams.”
Eric knew what was wrong but joined in on the blowing it off. They started breathing in synch and the memories of the day finally wiggled into a hidy-hole in some crevice of their respective brains. There is a respect that comes with sharing pain, and deciding when not to was its epitome.“Why couldn’t the father be two people, mine and his, hell even Gabriel can have one, why not a thousand?” Jason thought to himself,
“Eric, when you look at people, do you sum up their lives for them, tell the story in your head, give them a role to play?”
“I try not to.”
“Yeah, me too, I don’t want to punctuate anything.”
They sat there in twenty minutes of silence, the city slowed to their pulses, and the colors stood by themselves for an instant. The sky was milk and honey, and passersby seemed burnt into their backgrounds. The two brothers sat until they knew they couldn’t sit anymore, picked one last unspoken thought and buried it.

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