catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 1, Num 1 :: 2002.09.13 — 2002.09.26


The ties that bind

Part one of two

"C'mon, Phil! What the hell, did you die in there?"

"Go away!" Phil's muffled voice droned from inside the bathroom.

With a sigh, Jack spun on his heels and leaned back against the door to wait. Of all the mornings for Phil to hole up in the john, he had to pick Saturday, the first Saturday Jack had off work all summer. And the reason he got off was because it was also his eighteenth birthday. At seven he was supposed to pick up Diane to go to the beach. It was already quarter after six. Jack kicked the door with his heel.

"I need the bathroom, Phil."




"Phil!" Pissed off, he pounded the door with both fists. Jack didn't have to see his brother to know what he was doing. These spells came frequently enough for Jack to imagine it all: Phil's cigar stub fingers clumsily tracing the rim of the sink, his dark eyes staring blankly into the mirror, his thick lips stumbling to work around barely audible words as he counted to himself. He could count to twelve; learning to do so had been a crowning achievement of his school days, and so he counted to himself now whenever he felt down. A smile flitted quickly across Jack's face and was gone. He didn't have time for his brother's eccentricities this morning. He beat the door sharply until it quivered in its frame.

The noise finally roused the boys' mother. Wrapped in a powder blue velour housecoat, she stumbled out of her bedroom, wiping the sleep from her eyes with the back of her hands. Her shoulder length brown hair, matted from sleep, made her head appear lopsided, like an orange squashed flat on one side. She yawned.

"What's going on?"
Jack blew a deep sigh. "Phil locked himself in the bathroom again. I've got to get out of here in fifteen minutes, and I still need to shave and shower."

"Let me talk to him," she said. Jack stepped aside. His mother stopped him, kissed him on the cheek.

"Happy Birthday, sweetheart," she said and then turned to the closed door. "Phil, honey, it's Mom. What's wrong, sweetheart?"

Before Jack could hear a reply, the phone rang. He went to the kitchen to answer it, leaving his mother to coax Phil out of his porcelain and tile cocoon. He snapped up the phone as it started its second jangle, squeezed it between his right shoulder and ear while saying hello, and in the same motion opened the refrigerator to find some breakfast.

"Yeah, I need Dana," the gruff voice crackled in his ear.

Jack recognized the voice; it belonged to his mother's boss, the morning manager at Dixie's Cafe', the truck stop where his mother waited tables.

"A minute," he grunted as he stooped to survey inside the fridge. He swept the previous night's chicken and mashed potatoes to the side and pulled out a gallon of milk. He loosened the cap, sniffed the throat of the jug, pulled up his nose, and set it on the counter. Something sticky on the jug clung to his fingers, and he wiped them clean on his tee-shirt, a faded remembrance of a Bruce Springsteen concert that was one step away from joining the rag box.

"Phone's for you, Mom," Jack said, stepping past the refrigerator to peer down the hall. His mother had just gotten Phil to open the door. He was half a step out when he saw Jack. He stood like a stake driven into the floor. Then with his lower lip thrust out, he flung himself backward and slammed the door.

"Great," Jack muttered. His mother snorted softly, shaking her head side to side. She shuffled past him, taking the telephone from his hand. Jack sat on the floor opposite the bathroom door. He placed his palms down on the worn oak floor, letting its early morning cool seep through his skin. Jack was tall, lean, and muscular. A shock of curly brown hair crowned his head. He worked concrete during the summer, and the hard work and blistering sun turned him into a bronzed god, a living version of Michelangelo's David.

Jack closed his eyes and leaned his head against the wall. He'd have to call Diane, he thought. There was no way he was going to be on time. When Phil got in these moods, only Mom could talk him down, and even for her it could take hours.

Dimly aware he no longer heard his mother's voice from the other room, Jack opened his eyes. She stood at the end of the hall, her hands clasped above her chest. Jack knew the posture. Consciously or not, she always assumed this position when she had unpleasant news—the day she told them about Dad's accident, the time she lost her job as cashier at Bill's Shop-'n-Save, the time Phil broke his arm falling off his bike. This posture was so automatic that even Phil had picked it up. When upset, he would clasp his hands above his chest and rock back and forth on his feet.

"Jack?" she said tentatively. "I know you've been planning this day with Diane for weeks, and I know you want to spend some time alone together. But I have to go into work. Emily Doorn didn't show up this morning, and Mark is in a fix at the diner."

"Tell Mark to get out from behind the newspaper and take care of his own mess," Jack said.

"Now, Jack, it's not Mark's fault."

"No, but it isn't yours either. Why should you have to go in because Emily Doorn doesn't show up?"

"Because I need this job, Jack. We can use the extra money, and if I make myself indispensable, maybe I can get a raise, maybe even become overnight manager."

Arms folded across his chest, Jack stared silently at the closed bathroom door in front of him.

"Do what you have to do. If you can get Phil out of the bathroom, I'll take him with Diane and me."
Taking care of Phil was the role to which Jack was born. He'd spent a lifetime looking after his "little" brother who was actually three years his elder. Phil was a big, lunky kid and strong as a bear. In fact, Phil had many bearish qualities—his wide hands and stubby fingers, his projected brow and bushy eyebrows, his roly-poly girth. Actually the image Phil took was not so much that of a real bear. His features were too exaggerated, too cartoonish. What he truly resembled, as the neighborhood kids had pointed out years ago, was the figurehead for Hamm's beer—half bear, half buffoon.

Driving to pick up Diane, Jack glimpsed Phil slouched in the passenger seat, his wide eyes soaking up the landscape, and Jack recalled clearly the first time he'd called his brother Bear. They had been in the alley behind his apartment building playing kickball. The guys usually preferred stickball, but Jack, arguing for the sake of his brother, had persuaded them to play a half hour of kickball everyday after school. Kickball still presented the boys with some challenge and fun, but the size of the ball and the speed at which it was played allowed Phil to take part. As a rule, the guys were all right to Phil.

Phil had been up to kick. The pitch had rolled at him, and with an awkward, sideways motion, he'd kicked a spinner toward short left field. Feigning effort, Tommy had let the ball slip through his outstretched arms. He grunted loudly as the ball careened off Warshawski's garage behind him. In a limping gait, Phil ran toward first base. The other guys in the outfield, bumping and jostling each other and the whole time laughing and cursing, kept kicking the ball as they stooped to retrieve it. Phil was rounding third, a triumphant smile splashed across his face, when Joey first said it. Jack didn't like Joey. Jack had never trusted him.

"Hey, Bear!" Joey shouted. "Get your fat ass moving!"

The comment might have gone nearly unnoticed except that Phil, lumbering around the basepath, did look like a big old bear, tethered to a stake and running circles for the crowds amusement. The other boys quickly added their comments.

"Yeah, c'mon Bear, move it."

"Hike up your pants, Bear. We don't want to see no bare ass."

Phil stepped on home plate, and turned to the taunting voices with a smile, but as the taunting continued, the smile melted from his lips.

"Don't call me Bear," he said slowly. "I don't like it."

"C'mon, Bear," Joey said. "You look like a bear, you smell like a bear, your dumb as a. . . ."

Jack punched Joey from behind, just above his left kidney. With a gasp, Joey fell to the ground, clutching his side. Jack stepped over the writhing boy and addressed his brother.

"It's okay, Phil," he said. "The guys are calling you Bear because you're as strong as a bear. You're the strongest kid out here."

Phil stared at Jack for several seconds. Then his smile returned.

"I'm strong as a bear," he said. "I'm as strong as a bear."

"That's right," Jack said, slapping his brother's shoulder. "From now on I think we'll call you Bear."

"I'm Bear," Phil said, "because I'm strong as a bear. You guys call me Bear."

Jack put out his hand to Joey. The prone boy clasped it, and Jack pulled him up. Steely-eyed, the two stared at each other, and then Joey looked over Jack's shoulder.

"That's right, Bear," he had said. "You're as strong as a bear."

That had been years ago, but the name had stuck. Now Jack looked across the car at his brother, the Bear, who continued to stare blankly out the side window. A half smile sneaked across Jack's lips and was gone. He reached under his seat, pulled a cigarette from a crumpled pack of Lucky Strikes, and put it between his lips.

"You shouldn't smoke," Phil said, still staring out the window.

Ignoring him, Jack grabbed his lighter from the ashtray and lit the cigarette.

"Mom says it will give you cancer," Phil said, spinning now to face Jack. "She says it's a filthy habit. That's what she calls it. A filthy habit."

Jack took a deep drag off the cigarette and blew the smoke in his brother's face.

"Don't!" Phil mechanically waved a hand to clear the smoke from before his face. "Now you're going to give me cancer."

"You've gotta die from something."

Sullen, Phil turned back to the window.

"You shouldn't smoke," he muttered. "You shouldn't smoke."

At Diane's house, Jack ordered Phil into the back seat. Jack knocked at the door. A moment later Diane emerged. She wore a white cotton tee-shirt, thin and transparent from the many washings it had been through, and a pair of baggy, striped shorts, men's boxers. Jack's eyes drifted from the narrow, fine features of Diane's face to her ample chest where he could see the geometric designs of her bikini top through her shirt.

Diane walked out to the car. As she came around the passenger side of the hood, she saw Phil nestled in the back seat. She rested a hand on her hip.

"What's he doing here?" she asked.

"My mom had to work," Jack said. "I've got to watch him today."

"What about our date? We've been planning this for weeks."

Jack shrugged his shoulders and swung open the door for her. She glared at him before climbing into the car. She looked into the back seat. Their eyes locked on each other briefly, and then Phil looked down at his hands where they lay thick on his lap. Neither said a word. The other door opened, and Jack climbed in.

As they started down the road, Diane opened her beach bag, fishing in it until she pulled out a cigarette and a lighter. She bowed to light the cigarette, dropped the lighter back in the bag, and then sat back in her seat, brushing the blond hair from her cheekbones with both hands. She rested her sandaled feet on the dashboard.

"Smoking is a filthy habit." Phil's voice drifted from the back seat. "You're gonna get cancer and die."

Diane sighed heavily, rolling her eyes at Jack, who readjusted the rear view mirror until it framed his brother's face. Phil saw Jack's eyes in the mirror, knew Jack was angry. But he also felt courage in the back seat that he would not have felt sitting in front.

"She will, you know. She's gonna get cancer and die. She is."

"Jack, really," Diane groaned, "do I have to listen to this all day?"

"It's a filthy habit, a filthy habit."

"Phil, knock it off," Jack said.

"You shouldn't smoke. Mom says it's a filthy habit."

"Phil! I said knock it off!"

Jack turned to look over his right shoulder. The car lurched to the right.

"Smoking gives you cancer," Phil said. He was rocking in his seat, agitated. "You get cancer and die."

"Fine!" Diane snapped. She rolled down her window and flicked the half-burned cigarette outside the car. "I'll get rid of the damn cigarette, if you'll just shut up."

Her chin cupped in her hand, Diane sat with her eyes closed. Jack could see her nostrils flare with each breath. He looked into the mirror at his brother, who continued to rock in the back seat. For a moment, all were silent.

Then Phil's voice, simple and low: "You should wear your seatbelt. If we get in an accident, you're gonna die."

Phil's fixating on certain phrases or ideas or objects was nothing new. The previous Christmas season, he had spent all of December telling Jack, his mother, the mailman, the cashiers at Wal-Mart, the folks at First United Methodist Church, the butcher at the supermarket, and anyone else who would listen that it was Jesus' birthday. Jesus' birthday. If Jack had heard it once in December, he must have heard it three hundred times. That's just how Phil was.

It was all part of what his mother called Phil's "gift." For as long as Jack could remember, his mother had said Phil was touched by God, given this gift. As he'd grown older, Jack failed see how mental retardation was a gift. If it were, he was glad that it was one he'd never received.

Still, Jack had to admit that Phil was more affectionate, more loyal, and more honest than any other person he knew. And that steadiness and love had pulled Jack through some difficult times. When Jack was five, his father was rear ended by a semi-truck doing eighty miles per hour. The truck had peeled the top of the car off like the lid on a sardine tin. The boys' father had been decapitated. Even today Jack's mother didn't know that he knew these details. He was never supposed to have known. But the night of the accident, the night that the police came to the door at 11:30 p.m., well after the boys had been packed off to bed, that night Jack had needed to use the bathroom. He had just finished when a heavy knock fell on the door.

Jack crept down the stairs of their old house silently. He peeked around the door at the end of the hall. He could see the back of his mother's head and her shoulders, clad in a white tee shirt, one of his dad's. Over her shoulder, he could see the forehead and the beige brim of the state trooper's hat. The state trooper started talking in a very matter-of-fact voice.

"Ma'am, what is your relation to one Ronald Andrews?"

His mother mumbled that she was Ron's wife. The trooper continued.

"Ma'am, its my sad duty to inform you that there's been an accident. Your husband is dead."

Jack saw his mother's shoulders bunch tensely at the news, but she said nothing. Jack watched through the crack of the door. The yellow light of the foyer glowed around the trooper and his mother, and later in his life Jack would remember that glow and think of how it seemed like stage lights, like he was watching a drama. His vision blacked out his surroundings—the door, the hallway, the living room. He focused solely on the foyer where, in a voice reminiscent of the voice on the radio that explained the emergency broadcasting systems tests, in that same even and unfeeling voice, the trooper continued, detailing exactly how Jack's father had been killed. Jack's mother did not move, did not respond.

"Are you okay, ma'am?" the trooper asked. "Ma'am, are you okay?"

Even at five, Jack had found the question asinine. Of course she was not okay, and neither was he. Nor could he believe they ever would be again. Ducking back behind the door, he stumbled to bed, his teeth chattering, his whole body suddenly cold. Not wanting to be alone, he climbed into Phil's bed. The steady sound of his brother's breathing, the warmth of his large body, the weight of his chubby hand resting on Jack's chest, all helped ease the pain until finally Jack fell asleep.

For the next three months, Jack found himself, night after night, in Phil's bed. Jack would start in his own bed, but the darkness of the room would gather into a great ball and press down on him, and inside his own chest loneliness scuttled about like a rodent in a coldwater flat. Tormented by demons both within and without, he would ease himself onto the floor, across the hall, and into his brother's bed. Phil would always awake, startled, then as he'd see Jack's face, he'd smile and slide over to make room. Jack would slip beneath the covers, and in the darkness, Bear's steady breathing imparted benediction, brought him peace.

Jack could not and would not forget this priceless gift he had received from a brother so artless that he did not even know what he had offered, what he had done. But even so, Phil could be a nuisance. It wasn't so much anything Phil did. He was always kind, always genuine, always diligent. The problem was that, whatever Phil was, he was always it with Jack. For exactly seventeen years now Jack had been caring for his older brother, and he could not remember a stretch of more the eight hours in all those seventeen years that he had been away from Phil.

When Jack had been younger, he would sneak to the rooftop of his apartment building alone during summer afternoons, and lying on his back, the heat of the tar roof pounding into his body, he would watch the cumulus clouds roll by overhead. The great white clouds, born on the jet stream, rambled to ever-new vistas. Nothing could stay their motion. Great white puffs of steam, of smoke, of the breath of God—he could imagine nothing freer. For hours he would gaze with envy.

But after his time on the roof, always there was a returning home, a descent down the fire escape to the physical realities of life with Phil. Jack and his brother were Siamese twins connected not by the same spine or organs, but by a deficiency, and Jack had despaired of ever finding a surgeon who could successfully separate them. Phil needed Jack, would always need Jack, as long as he lived.

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