by Mitchell Waldman
I remember the feel of the stone in my hand that day, how its rough edges dug into the cradle between my thumb and forefinger before I cocked my arm and hurled it with all my might.
My stepbrother, Sam, in a family meeting, all too infrequent these days, says he was there that day. Sam, his girlfriend, Beth, Dad, and I are standing around the center island in my parents' kitchen, drinking coffee. I always want to have a real conversation with Sam, as little as we see of each other, but somehow he's always bringing up the past. Like that day. He starts telling me about it. Funny, I don't even remember him being there.
"Of course I was there, Martin," he says. "You don't think I'd let you take the rap alone, do you?" But in my memory, it was just me and these other guys, Bill Fineman and Pete Roth. And, when the car stopped, just me, all alone, paralyzed, watching this heavy-set, red-faced man huffing toward me, closer and closer, until he was climbing the wire fence, and then lunging toward me with his pudgy hands.
Our 70-year old father -- my stepfather -- points out to Beth that Sam and I were both basically good kids (and thus, he, as a parent, was not to blame?), despite these stories Sam keeps dredging up. How we stole candy at the local drugstore and fishing lures at the local retail stores. And about the stone-throwing incident.
It started as a game on the way to Hebrew School. We were both twelve years old, Sam four months older. That's why he always called me his "little brother," even back then, when I was almost twice his size -- it was a joke that never quite died. Hebrew School was not something we looked forward to, nor was the session afterward, when we'd sit in the Cantor's office singing the Haftorah portions we were to learn for our upcoming B'nai Mitzvah.
I think it was my idea, or maybe Sam's. We were walking beside the expressway with these other guys. There were three of us (or four, if you accept Sam's version of the facts). We would wait until the cars passed and then wind up and hurl the stones to see who could throw the farthest. But, after a while, there was too much waiting, and I threw mine over before the cars went past. Then, when that became a bore, I started a new game.
It didn't seem like there were people in them -- you couldn't even see them in the twilight -- just hunks of metal, with their mechanical eyes lit, flying down the newly paved road.
The trick was to lead the car enough so that there was a little skip, then, crrrump, the stone would bounce right under the front of the car. There was a certain skill involved in this. There was a boldness in it for me, too. Growing up, I never did anything on my own. It was his life I lived -- Sam was the leader and I followed. He was a popular boy in our neighborhood. All the other guys would always drop by when something was going on, or when absolutely nothing was going on.
I never really had my own friends. While I was reading books in my room on sweltering summer days, pretending I preferred it, I waited for him to ask me to come along with him and his friends. Occasionally he did, usually not. I envied him, the way he got along with people so easily, how he did things. I got good grades, but I thought too much -- everyone said it. I thought myself out of doing things, made myself afraid that if I tried anything I'd end up making a fool of myself.
And there was something else too: we were two families that never quite became one. Dinner was invariably a battle between my mother and Sam. My stepfather would get into it too, angrily defending his son, while I sank down into my chair, afraid to look at Sam, embarrassed that I was never the one Mom shouted at. Sinking down, trying to make myself invisible, afraid she would try to hoist me up as an example for Sam.
Maybe he held it against me all those years. I don't know.
These days, we don't seem to have much to say to each other. Maybe there are just too many differences, too many diverging paths, between us. He's an accountant who lays concrete on the side. I'm a freelance writer, a sometimes-poet. I express my feelings with words, he with numbers or the pouring of a smooth sidewalk. But maybe that's not it at all. Maybe we just have too much to say to each other.
When we do talk, it's always me calling him -- I can't remember the last time he phoned me first. Our conversations are limited to him giving me tax advice or me wishing him happy holidays of one sort or the other. I sometimes wonder if he ever thinks about anything outside his own small world of big-time business dealings. When I call, a couple times a year, he invariably puts me on hold, then cuts our conversation short -- he has so much to do, he's a very busy man. But once, out of the blue, he surprised me.
We were at my parents' condo another time. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Martin, I'm proud of you."
"You are," I said. I didn't know what brought this on.
"You've got a career, a beautiful family, you're a responsible man!"
His hand was still on my shoulder. It was starting to feel like a weight. "Does that surprise you?" I said.
He laughed in a sort of snort, like he was clearing out his nostrils. "Well, at one time you were a real mess, back in college, and afterward. But you've turned out okay. You've done good, that's all. Why? Can't a brother feel proud of his little brother?"
Gee, thanks, I thought, smiling at him. After all, what was he doing then to be playing proud big brother to me? Making a lot of money, sure, but also on the way to wrecking his marriage of ten years, seeing another woman on the side (Beth), and in the midst of a hush hush financial scandal that could very well end up in the courts or land him in prison and was about to leave my parents, as two of the investors, out ten thousand dollars. Of course, nobody talked about it then, not in my parents' house. Dad was still acting like nothing had happened, joking with Sam, overdoing it almost, smiling at him like the good son who could do no wrong. And here Sam was, praising me for my domestic and meager career accomplishments.
As kids, Sam overshadowed me in everything and was the first to do anything. He was the first to get jobs, the first to get drunk, the first to get laid. He was the first to buy a genuine Nikon camera, after which my stepfather built him a darkroom in the basement. I can still remember Dad laying out the squares of plywood on the sawhorse, whipping out his yellow measuring tape and, with tongue to one side, puffing out his cheek, carefully marking the saw line with his pencil.
Sam wanted a tree house too. I remember Dad on the ladder, a nail between his teeth, his hammer pounding the nails in between the two-by-fours and the spider-like limbs of the oak tree behind our house. It didn't turn out to be much, really, just a big wooden crate with a thin slab of roofing material laid over it. But it was something Dad built for Sam.
And after it was done, I stood on the ground, staring up at it, my arms hanging uselessly beside me, afraid to climb up, while Sam's friends taunted me from their little wooden shelter up above, calling me a chickenshit, Mama's boy, stuff like that. After a while I'd shrug, like it didn't bother me, and slink away, my hands dug deep into my pockets. But it didn't stop them. Their taunts only got louder.
And the thing about it was, Sam didn't stop them. And I could hear him laughing along with them as I walked away. That's what burned me the most.
I thought brothers were supposed to protect one another.
So when he says he was there that night, how can I trust him? How can I believe him? He was not there that night, I'm sure of it.
When he went away to college, it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I could have my own life, my own interests, my own friends.
But that was years later, years after I stood there that evening, that stone laying in my palm.
I must have hit three or four cars on the bounce, breathing faster with each hit, my tosses increasingly accurate, meeting the mark with a perfect lead and bounce, ending with the crrrump under the front end of the car and then the car whizzing by, not even touching the brakes.
But then something happened. One of the cars didn't sail on past as it was supposed to. Suddenly, it wasn't a game anymore. The red brake lights of the car lit as the car swerved and pulled off onto the side of the road, some fifty yards ahead of where we stood by the fence. The driver's side door opened and the heavy man with eyeglasses was running toward us, yelling something inaudible. The other boys ran for it, shouting for me to come on, did I want to get killed? I could go, but was determined not to. I would stick to the spot, take what was coming to me, afraid, but choosing not to be weak. The large dark figure was coming closer, his features becoming clearer as he reached the fence, the puffy red face, greasy head full of black curls, the thickness of his glasses. Rage in his eyes, breathing heavily, but not saying a word. And me not daring to breathe, not daring to blink as the man hurdled the fence and grabbed me by the collar of my denim jacket and lifted me up off my feet.
The man was cursing, spitting as he talked.
"Where do you live, you little rat?" I pointed in the direction behind me and the man, still spitting, cursing, his face now as red as Georgia clay, hobbled in the direction of my guiding finger, me still hanging by the collar, sneakers dragging against the pavement and grass as we went. Studying his face. Up close it was pockmarked, full of tiny craters like the moon. And there were narrow streams of sweat running down his cheeks, as he huffed and huffed. I was sickened by his sour smell, turning away, watching the world I'd lived in most of my life -- the park with its swings, basketball nets and tennis courts, the old brick water fountain, the backs of neighbors' bushes -- pass by in a way that, from this angle, made everything seem alien.
"Where now?" the man asked, as we reached the sidewalk. "And don't try to lead me wrong 'cause I'll skin your little hide."
"That way," I said, my throat dry, neck aching.
When we got to the house, he finally set me down. I fell to the ground and looked up at him. He was standing with his hands on his hips.
"Ring the bell!" he said. I just stood there. He shoved me toward it. I rang.
The door opened, and my mother appeared, a dish in one hand, a dish towel in the other. She smiled a little smile, but you could tell she didn't really mean it. Her left eye was twitching slightly, the way it does sometimes -- she has a nervous streak in her.
"Can I help you?" she said, looking at the man.
"This your kid?"
"Why yes. What's the matter?" Then she looked at me, the smile gone now. "Are you hurt, Martin?"
"Martin." The man spat my name out. "This boy, this...Martin of yours been chucking rocks at cars. Him and some other little shits. One thunked us right in the windshield. Scared the crap out of us. My wife's sitting back there on the side of the road, crying her eyes out."
"Why I'm...I don't know what to say." She looked at me then, not with anger, but with incomprehension. I was her perfect kid, the boy who could do no wrong. "Did you do that, Martin? Did you throw a rock at this man's car?"
I didn't answer. I avoided my mother's eyes.
"Tell the man you're sorry."
But I didn't move a muscle, didn't make a sound.
And in my room that night I couldn't sleep. Staring in the dark at the ceiling, my heart was racing with the memory of how it felt -- hearing again, with satisfaction, the solid sound of the rock hitting metal: crrump. Watching the car stop and pull over, the red-faced, stumbling man, moving toward me in a rage. The fence the only thing between us. While the others before had driven right by, he had stopped. Remembering how he'd grabbed me, the pain as he'd dragged me by the collar. Feeling a curious pleasure at that.
"Man, we were crazy back then," my brother says, laughing in that nasal snort of his. And I'm thinking, we? But he wasn't even there that night.
Still, my stepfather steps around me and places a hand on Sam's shoulder. "That you were, my son, that you were."
And I'm twelve years old again, with the stone in my hand -- the stone that, as a grown man, I cannot get rid of -- feeling the way it's sharp edges cut into my hand, drawing my clenched fist back behind me ear, waiting for the next car to come.
Bio: Mitchell Waldman's fiction, poetry, and essays have previously appeared in many places, most recently in Midwest Literary Magazine, Connotation Press, new aesthetic, Wilderness House Literary Review, Longshores Literary Magazine, Girls With Insurance, The Battered Suitcase, Worldwidehippies, Greatest Lakes Review, Five Fishes Journal, Moronic Ox Literary and Cultural Review, eclectic flash, Ink Monkey Magazine, and eFiction Magazine. His writing has also appeared in the anthologies Beyond Lament: Poets of the World Bearing Witness to the Holocaust (Northwestern University Press, 1998), Messages from the Universe (iUniverse, 2002), and America Remembered (Virgogray Press, 2010).
He is also the author of the novel, A Face in The Moon, with co-editor(Diana May-Waldman) of the anthology, Wounds of War: Poets for Peace, and currently serves as Fiction Editor for Blue Lake Review. For more information, see his website at: