Friday, October 7, 2011

The Legendary posted this story in the September issue of its Fiction Section.  Many thanks to the editors!


by MaryAnne Kolton

           Edwin spotted them the moment he got off the train.  They were all lined up on the platform like show dogs vying for Best of Breed.   
Mama, in an electric blue, polyester pantsuit, her swollen feet in too tight shoes danced  nervous baby steps of anticipation.  Her white knuckled hands twisted themselves into knots.  Sweat rolled down her face from her dyed black hair held back in a ponytail by a glittering red scrunchy.
Marlin, shorter and heavier than he remembered him.  His oldest brother was and always would be a demented bully.  His belly hung over the belt of his work pants and that untrimmed beard wasn’t doing him any favors.  Did he really just spit a big stream of chew on the platform?  Almost hit the bejeweled flip-flops of the heavyset blonde with the split lip and thighs like smoked Virginia Hams encased in jean shorts.  Had to be Marlin’s wife.
 Curtis was next in line.  Couldn’t miss Curtis.  Six foot-five, probably only weighed one- eighty-something.  So thin he struck some as sickly but Edwin knew he had a grip on him that could snap a man’s neck like a toothpick.  His wife was a timid looking, mouse–like woman.  Small pointed mouse teeth and nose.  Grey-brown mouse colored hair and eyes.  Like Curtis she was taller than average and could have used a little more meat on her bones.  Mouse meat, thought Edwin and smiled.  If you squinted a bit she seemed to blend right into the background. 
A gaggle of urchin children were bunched up against their parents.  He supposed they’d get sorted out for him sooner or later.  Or not.  Only his mama looked him directly in the eye.  The rest of them could have been waiting for the next train to arrive.
Welcome home, Edwin,  he thought, but no one said.  They were all staring at his chocolate colored linen slacks, snow-white linen shirt and Gucci sandals.  How was your trip?  Oh, not too bad.  The train was okay.  You know I don’t fly since 9/11.  The person I loved most in this world was crushed into unidentifiable dust on that day.  Remember?  We’re all so sorry for your loss
Not one of them had a uttered a word as he approached them.  He guessed he’d have to go first.
“Well now.  Hey, everyone.”  Mama squealed, and made small beckoning gestures with her untwisted hands.  God, this was going to be painful.

Edwin, Marlin, Curtis and a sister, Dottie were raised poor and strict.  Tattered, faded clothes, broken toys and worn out shoes that never fit.  Discipline was meted out by their father who used a razor strop to ensure obedience from the boys. 
Dottie, who lived in the clouds of dandelion dust and bumblebees that inhabited her fair-haired head, was stolen from them by the Red Fox River when she was eight years old.  Whirled under the fast moving water while trying to follow a giant snapping turtle that would have had her leg for lunch if it had turned around and seen her.  “If only she’d been paying attention,” Mama wailed, when the deputies pulled her only daughter from the Red Fox.  “She never did pay attention.”   
Dottie was her father’s favorite child.  Tender with her where he was tough on the boys,  once she was gone he began to disappear.  He fought the years of chronic emphysema - brought on by smoking unfiltered cigarettes since he was ten years old - with his usual three packs a day.  He ate less, slept hardly at all, and within six months of Dottie’s death he was gone. 
He’d been unemployed at the time of his death and the boys all had part-time jobs to supplement their mother’s meager income from quilting.  That plus their Dad’s disability checks had been not quite getting them through the month.  When the checks stopped, Marlin quit school having squeaked through seventh grade by a hair and assumed the duties of head of the household. 
It took less than a month for every one of them, even Mama, to be scared to death of Marlin.  He had always been big for his age.  A tall, lumbering, mean kid who took pleasure in doing things like pulling the back legs off squirrels and watching them scratch and pull their way across the dirt as they bled to death.  With his father gone he assumed a new persona.  He became a thirteen-year-old tyrant.  All these years he’d hidden his most depraved acts from his family.  Now, his absolute control over each of them and his always-limited intelligence fed his worst instincts.  He tormented the critters and his brothers in plain sight.
Marlin found work running questionable errands for the nefarious men who laid about at the general store.  In addition, he ran the house.  Told his mother what to cook and when to serve it.  Sent her to bed, poking her in the behind with his daddy’s rifle, when he got tired of her trembling and weeping.  He beat his younger brothers with anything he could lay his hands on if they dared challenge him. 
Curtis found some old tools that had belonged to his father and kept Marlin from selling them only by learning to use them to do odd jobs for others in the mountain community.  He fixed broken porch steps, repaired leaky faucets and built bookshelves and other small pieces of furniture to sell.
            Edwin’s mother used what little leverage she had to protect him from Marlin.  He was a smart child, full of dreams and small for a ten year old.  His mother taught him to make bread.  He picked fruit and vegetables and learned how to stew preserves and can green beans.  She kept him with her in the kitchen  - as far away from Marlin as possible.
            Curtis built a roadside stand and dragged it down the hill to the main road.  There Edwin sold his fresh baked loaves, jarred preserves and seasoned vegetables.  He carted them down to the road in a wooden wagon that Curtis had made for the carrying.  He was proud to be helping his mama and surprised how much he like the cooking and baking. 
He and Curtis plotted and planned their brother’s demise on a daily basis.  But never in front of their mama.  No use giving her anything else to worry about.  She already had a pretty full plate.
As the years advanced Curtis grew lean, hard muscled and tall.  At sixteen he was too busy working to care much about school.  He was a quiet loner and that itched at Marlin now eighteen and growing fatter and lazier by the minute.  Marlin ran his mouth about Curtis’s acne- scarred face, his thin, stringy hair and his lack of a girlfriend whenever he dared. 
By this time Edwin was doing well in his first year of high school.  He now did most of the cooking and was about as happy as some one who was kin to Marlin dared to be.
Edwin had turned in to a handsome boy.  “Too soft looking and girly-like” as Marlin often commented.  The word faggot was tossed about by Marlin like a threat of some kind.  He probably would have loved to beat on Edwin until he “cried like a little girl” but he didn’t dare lay a hand on him now.   
“Leave off him.”  Curtis said low and serious, slapping his heavy-duty tin snips in the palm of his hand.  Over the years, he had become his brother’s protector, sensing a difference in Edwin that he didn’t care to put a name to.  A difference that Edwin himself was only vaguely aware of. 
The two events that changed Edwin’s life forever could not have been foreseen.
The first came when Curtis was putting a new roof on the Jankowicz house.  He made an ill-advised grab for a dropped hammer sliding off the tarpaper and the next thing he was aware of was the sound of the ambulance siren as he was being transported to the county hospital twenty miles away.  He had injured his back to the extent that the doctors could not tell him exactly when he’d be going home.
The other thing that happened was Edwin, now almost sixteen, developed a friendship with a new boy at school.  Danny liked the same books and music as Edwin did.  They slow walked home each day from the bus stop talking the whole time about shared interests.  Danny wanted to be an artist.  Edwin thought, not for the first time, that he might like to cook for a living.  Danny was the only one he’d ever told this to.  Neither one of them cared much for hunting or sports, the local pastimes.
Edwin was generally well liked by every one at school, both teachers and students.  But he’d never had a best friend before.  He started going to Danny’s house after school to study and do homework.  One afternoon the boys were lying on the floor in Danny’s room planning a shared history presentation.  As Edwin reached for a pack of five-by-seven note cards his hand accidentally brushed Danny’s arm.  The hairs on both their arms stood at attention.  They looked at each other neither one saying a word.  At last Edwin had a clue about the “otherness” that trampled through his dreams and worried his waking hours.
“So,” Danny said, “we should get back to work, huh?” 
“Yeah,” said Edwin, “we better.”
But they lay on the floor just holding hands until it was time for Edwin to walk home.
As Danny and Edwin grew closer they began to spend more time together.  They discovered they both had dreams that extended far beyond the little town they lived in.  The boys began to care for each other in a way they knew would never be condoned by either of their families and they dreamt about moving to a place where their relationship would be accepted and their talents appreciated.  Danny became the most important person in Edwin’s life.
  Edwin never invited Danny to his house.  There was no way he would ever expose him to Marlin.  Marlin in turn became suspicious of where his youngest brother was spending so much of his time. 
 He made it his first order of business to find out just what Edwin was up to. 
It was when he did find out, a few months later, that all hell broke loose.  The first thing he did was beat Edwin unconscious leaving him out cold on the kitchen floor.  Then he got blind drunk and just about destroyed the house breaking furniture and smashing his mother’s treasures.  He threatened to burn the house down with Edwin in it.  His mother annoyed him with her non-stop wailing and sobbing and calling for Curtis who was still in the rehabilitation center at County General so he locked her in her room.
“Useless old bitch,”  he mumbled as he staggered his way down the stairs, then out back to the shed, looking for kerosene.
When Edwin came to it was dark.  He was hurting bad and thought more than one of his ribs might be broken.  He knew for sure his left arm was.  He could hear his mother pounding on the floor upstairs and screaming his name.  He dragged himself up the stairs then down the hall to her room.  He lay down on the floor and kicked at the old door with his shoes while she pounded on the lock with a rock shaped like a bear that she had found in the woods out back.  Between them they got the door open.  Edwin told his mama to call the Sheriff.  Carrying his daddy’s rifle against his right side he found Marlin passed out in the shed.  He thumped him on the head once with the stock of the old twenty-two just to make sure he stayed down until the law came.
Curtis was discharged from the rehabilitation center a week after Marlin tried to kill Edwin and he decided to move into an apartment in town.  Edwin spent a few days in the hospital after Marlin came unglued and when he left the hospital he just plain disappeared.  Betty Lou Polk convinced Marlin the baby she was carrying was his and he figured he might as well marry her.  He needed somebody to keep house for him since Mama had moved in with Curtis.  They lived on in his parent’s house and let it get so run down that Mama wouldn’t even go out that way anymore. 
She was happy in town.  Everybody made over her and her misfortunes like they didn’t have a one of their own.  Only her loss of Edwin caused her heart to ache so bad sometimes she’d get to crying and couldn’t stop.  He’d written to her that he and Danny had taken the bus to Chicago and they were happy together.  Edwin was doing prep work in a restaurant kitchen and Danny was hanging wallpaper.  They were both trying to finish school at night.


Time passed as it always does.  Curtis married Joani Tipper, the dental assistant for the only dentist within forty miles, and built a nice little place for her and Mama and him toward the edge of town.  He hired someone else to do the roof.  Marlin and Betty Lou had four kids they couldn’t afford in quick succession.  Marlin was driving eighteen-wheelers and gone a good part of the time.  When he was home, the neighbors complained constantly about the yelling and screaming going on at his and Betty Lou’s house but the Sherriff seemed disinclined to haul Marlin in when it came to what he considered “family matters’.
Danny opened a small gallery in the River North section of Chicago and his work was always in demand.  Edwin realized his dream of “cooking” for a living - the owner of two serious Chicago restaurants - the executive chef at one.  They were so proud of what they’d accomplished.  Both had worked hard, accumulated a fair amount of money and talked about adopting a child.  
The two men traveled around the world together.  Edwin experimenting with ingredients and recipes from places like the Middle East, the Pacific Islands and Asia, while Danny painted and photographed all the things they experienced.
The love between them was a living, breathing thing that others could not fail to notice and, for the most part, revel in.  Neither one could envision a life without the other.
Mama wrote non-stop notes to Edwin begging him to come visit her, and he kept in touch with her and Curtis, but could not envision a return to a time and place in his life of so much pain and ignorance.
Edwin’s loss of Danny on 9/11 - he was in New York negotiating a display loan of some of his most important works with one of the corporations in the Twin Towers – brought him to his knees.  No trace was ever found of Danny and for a long while Edwin was positive he could not go on without him.  He withdrew from his friends, his businesses and life.  He felt lost, anchorless and without purpose.  It was in this fog of depression, anger and loneliness that he decided to make the trip home.


Edwin had come home intending to visit a  while with his mama and Curtis.  He hoped to spend some time explaining how much Danny had meant to him and how the loss of him had left him adrift.  Edwin knew they both loved him enough to make an effort to understand.  But, at the sight of all of them standing there waiting for him his stomach twisted around itself.  His head filled with the awful memories of the past and when he weighed them against the loving force his life with Danny had been, he knew what he had to do. 
He forced himself to stand up a bit straighter.  He stepped toward his mama, wrapped her in his arms and held her close for a few long moments, as she cried and said his name over and over.  She was so old now, his heart ached for her and the life she had endured. 
Edwin moved on over to Curtis, shook his hand, hugged him hard and whispered, “Thank you.”  Curtis, nodded and shoulder bumped Edwin.
  Marlin swaggered forward a foot or so like he was preparing to say something.  Edwin looked him straight in the eyes, knowing exactly what he wanted, and with a half smile and not a word, let him know he was getting nothing.  No mercy and no money.  Marlin’s jaw twitched as he moved back.
 Edwin turned around, shaking his head, walked on down the platform and got back on the departing train.   


No comments:

Post a Comment