by Andy Rausch
Goddamn you, Henry. This was Tom’s first thought upon seeing his brother for the first time in 43 years. He watched his brother get out of the yellow Buick and approach the house. Tom had been sitting in a chair on the porch, reading a Harlan Coben book. He set the book down and stood, steeling himself for confrontation.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked. “Do I need to go get my gun?”
Tom looked at him with tired eyes and held his palms up. “No, brother. I came to bury the hatchet.”
Tom wasn’t convinced. “Where you gonna bury it? In my head?” He squinted at Henry. “You better not try anything.”
“Or what?” asked Henry, almost to the steps now. “You gonna fall down and break a hip?”
Tom muttered to himself and sat down. Henry made his way up the steps and onto the porch. He looked around at the house. “I see you’ve kept her up in good pretty good shape.”
“I done what I could.”
Henry nodded towards the empty chair. “Mind if I sit?”
Tom shrugged. “Last I knew, it was a free country.”
Henry sat and looked his brother over. “You’ve turned into an old man.”
“Well, shit. What the hell do you think you are?”
Henry chuckled. “You’re older than me.”
“By one goddamn year. I might be 82, but you’re still 81, and 81 ain’t no spring chicken.”
“Don’t I know it,” said Henry, nodding.
Tom looked him square in the eyes. He’d waited for decades to see his brother again, but now that he was here, he just wanted it to be over. In his mind, the window for reconciliation had long since closed.
“What do you want?”
Henry sighed. “I just want to make peace.”
“Why now? It’s been a long time.”
“It’s been too long,” Henry said. “I figure 40 years is enough.”
“You haven’t changed a bit, have you?” Henry asked, chuckling. “Here I am coming to you with my hat in hand, trying to say I’m sorry, and you’ve gotta be hard about it.”
“I don’t see no hat in your hand.”
“I don’t wear hats. But maybe I should. The docs say I got skin cancer.”
“That’s it?” Tom asked. “You just came to talk about hats?”
“There you go again, being hard.”
“As I recall, you were pretty hard yourself,” Tom said. “Last time I saw you, you swore you’d get revenge against me if it was the last thing you ever did.”
Henry just chuckled.
“So what then?” Tom asked. “You don’t want revenge now?”
“I changed, brother. Don’t a man have the right to change?”
Tom gave him a hard look. “You ain’t changed. You’re older is all.”
“How do you know I haven’t changed?”
“Don’t nothin’ change but the weather.”
“And you had the nerve to call me hard,” Henry said. “I’ll be straight with you. I lost my wife Lottie a couple summers back. That was hard. Real hard. And my kids never come to see me. I’m not even sure they know I’m still alive.”
“Well,” said Tom, “I didn’t know you was alive either. And now that I’m looking at you, I still can’t tell.”
“You think I look that bad?”
“You look worse. You look like a hundred pounds of monkey shit.”
“What does monkey shit even look like?
“Look in the mirror,” Tom said.
Henry ignored this and continued. “Anyway, Lottie dying put things into perspective for me and I got to thinking about the things that are important.”
“And what do you figure those things are?”
“Family and loved ones,” Henry said. “You and my kids.”
“When did you say Lottie died?”
“Two years ago.”
Tom said, “Her death made you think about those things, but it still took you two years to come here? You’re a stubborn old bastard. You’ll never change.”
“You’re wrong about that,” Henry said. “I have changed. I’m offering you an olive branch here.”
Tom stared at him for a long time, trying to decide what he should say. Then he said, “I never did understand why you were so upset in the first place.”
“After Mom and Pop died, you took everything. This house, their belongings, their savings. You took it all.”
“I took what they left me,” Tom said. “I didn’t ask for any of it. That was what they decided.”
Henry glared at him. “You should have shared it with me, Tom! You should have done what was right!”
“No. Maybe it was right to you. Maybe it was even right to me. But it wasn’t right to them or they wouldn’t have drawn up the will the way they did. It would have been disrespectful to them for me to cut you in after they specifically said they didn’t want you to have any of it.”
Henry stared at him in silence.
Tom continued. “You might not have thought it was all that big a thing, but when you stole all their money to run off and get married to that Mexican gal…”
“Estrellita,” Henry said.
“I don’t give a damn what her name was. That ain’t the point. The point is you hurt them. Hurt ’em bad. Even after y’all made up and you came back, they never did get over that. It still hurt. You were their son, Henry. You disrespected them and you hurt them. Don’t you understand that?”
Henry looked at him with wet eyes. “They didn’t approve of Estrellita, and it was just because she was Mexican. What the hell did you expect me to do?”
“Maybe they screwed that up, sure, but that’s how it was back then. You know that. I’m not saying it was right, but Mom and Pop were good people doing the best they could. Besides, it turned out they were right anyway, didn’t it? How long were you and that gal married?”
“Almost a year,” Henry said.
“Almost a year. And you screwed over your own blood, your parents, for a relationship that went to shit almost immediately.”
“But it could have worked,” Henry said. “There was no way to know it wouldn’t.”
“You’re right, there wasn’t. And I wouldn’t begrudge you that. She was a pretty gal and she was sweet. If you were in love with her, which I think you were, you shoulda been able to marry her.”
“But you still think I did wrong?”
“Hell yes, I do. You were wrong because you took the easy way, Henry. Instead of working and saving your money like decent people do, you took Mom and Pop’s money and ran off without saying a word. They were worried sick about you. I was worried sick. And after you left, money was tight. Things were hard.”
“But they made it,” Henry said.
“They made it, but it was no thanks to you.”
Henry stared at him and there was a long pause. Finally he said, “Look, I was wrong to do that. I’m sorry.”
“It ain’t me you owe the apology to.”
“That’s true, but they ain’t here for me to say it to, so you’re gonna have to do.”
“You didn’t even come back for the funeral.”
“What the hell was I supposed to do? Everybody was mad at me.”
“But you still came back for the reading of the will.”
Henry looked down with shame.
“What the hell do you want?” Tom asked. “The money’s gone and there ain’t nothing left to give you. And I live here in the house, so you’re not getting that.”
“I don’t want anything.”
“You must want something,” Tom said. “You’re here.”
“All I wanted was to make peace with you, brother. I don’t want nothing else.”
Tom just sat there for a few minutes, staring out at the passing traffic. Then he turned back to his brother. “You said you were gonna get revenge against me. That was the last thing you said to me. I still remember it like it was yesterday.”
Henry said, “But it wasn’t.”
“No, it wasn’t. It was 43 years ago, and you ruined any chance of us ever having a good relationship. You wasted those years, Henry.”
“You shouldn’t have come.”
Henry said, “I just wanted to try to make things right.”
“It can never be right.”
Henry nodded. “Okay then, at least as good as possible.”
Tom just sat there staring off, thinking. As he did, tears welled up in his eyes. He looked at his brother. “Why should I trust you now?”
“I don’t know what to tell you, brother. I don’t know how to prove it to you, but I’ve changed. I want to try to get to know you before it’s too late. Like you said, we ain’t young no more.”
Tom stared into his brother’s eyes. “Okay, I forgive you, Henry. I don’t know if you’ve changed, but…”
“Let me prove it to you.”
“How? How you gonna do that?”
“Get to know me, big brother,” Henry said. “Do that and you’ll see. I’m not the same man I was when we were younger.”
Tom stared into his eyes again. “That’s good because you were an awful, horrible, mean sonofabitch when you were younger.”
Henry nodded, giving him a sad look. “I can’t deny that.”
“Well, I figure we get together soon, sometime when I’m in town longer, and we can spend some time together. We can catch up.”
Tom considered it. It sounded good, but he didn’t want to get hurt again. Finally he said, “That sounds good, Henry. I’d like that.”
“You’re just in town for today?”
Henry nodded. “Yes, but I’m free in July.”
“July? That’s two months away.”
Henry shrugged. “July 23rd.”
“That’s a very random, specific day.”
“Do you want to get together or not?”
“I do, little brother. And I don’t have anything scheduled beyond the next piss I take. I don’t make plans.”
“Well, plan for this. It’ll be a special day. A day to remember. That’s when you’ll see me.”
“Okay,” Tom said, nodding. “I look forward to it.”
Henry stood and held his boney hand out for Tom to shake. Tom took it in his own boney hand and pumped it. “I’m sure glad I got to see you today. I’ve missed you.”
“Likewise.” Henry turned toward the steps. “Mark it on your calendar, brother.”
“Are you sure? You’ve always been flakey.”
“I guarantee it. No matter what, we’ll be together on July 23rd.”
Henry winked at him. “You couldn’t stop it if you tried.”
“I’ll see you soon, brother,” Henry said, making his way back to the old yellow Buick. Tom watched him climb into the car, start the engine, and drive away.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Tom said. Miracles really did happen.
He thought about Henry for the rest of the day. He was glad he’d changed. Henry had always been a terrible person, so the fact that he’d changed made Tom happy. And despite it all, he really did love him. Thinking about the two of them getting together in July excited him.
A few hours passed and Tom was sitting in his recliner watching Jeopardy when the phone rang. Tom muted the television and then reached over and grabbed the phone. He raised it to his ear.
“Tom?” asked a woman on the other end.
“This is Tom.”
“This is your cousin, Evelyn.”
“Oh, hey, Evelyn. I didn’t recognize your voice.”
She laughed. “Well, that’s understandable. It’s probably been 20 years since the last time we spoke.”
“I suspect that’s right,” Tom said. “What can I do for you?”
“The reason I’m calling is…Well, it’s your brother.”
“Do you have any other brothers?”
Tom chuckled. “No, just the one. And that’s plenty. What about him?”
“This is hard for me to say, but he’s dead, Tom.”
This startled Tom. “I can assure you he’s not.”
“He is, Tom. He was killed in a car accident last night on 400.”
“That’s not true.”
“It is, Tom.”
He was confused. “It’s not possible.”
“I’m afraid it is,” Evelyn said. “I was the one who went to the morgue and ID’d his body.”
Tom started getting angry. “What the hell is this, Evelyn?”
“I understand you being upset, Tom, but…at least he died quickly. He was in that old Buick LeSabre of his.” She paused. “I don’t think you two had spoken since he’d gotten it, but it was a pretty old thing.”
“Was it yellow?” Tom asked.
“Yeah, it was. How’d you know?”
“I must have seen a picture.”
“Well, another car tried to pass,” Evelyn said, starting to sob. “They were in the other lane… But they…they ended up pulling out right in front of Henry’s car, and…they…collided head-on.”
“You’re sure it was Henry you saw?”
Evelyn started sobbing harder. “Oh, it was awful, Tom. Just awful. But it was definitely him. The service is gonna be next Wednesday if you can make it. It’s in Lackley, over at the Donovan Funeral Parlor on Seventh.”
“Maybe it wasn’t him.”
“It was definitely him, Tom” she said. “He had a tattoo… I didn’t know he had a tattoo.”
“He had a couple,” Tom said.
“This one was a half naked woman.”
“He got that when he was in the Navy.”
Evelyn said, “That was the one I saw.”
Tom sat there, trying to work it all out in his head. Evelyn could have been lying, but he knew she wasn’t. She was crying and he could hear the earnestness in her voice. She was still talking when he hung up in a daze.
He didn’t understand it. How could it be?
Then he thought, what if Henry was a ghost? But that was nonsense. There was no such thing as ghosts, right? But…what if there was? And as he thought about it, he figured it out. Yes, Henry was a ghost. A piece of shit ghost.
Henry had been a piece of shit in life, and now he was a piece of shit in death. Henry had come for revenge, letting Tom know exactly what day he was going to die. It could have been something else, but he was certain this was the purpose of his brother’s visit. Henry was finally getting his revenge. He’d vowed that he’d get it if it was the last thing he ever did. Tom had obviously believed that meant before Henry’s death, but that hadn’t been the case.
“No matter what, we’ll be together on July 23rd,” Henry had said. And that other line… What was it? Oh, yes, “You couldn’t stop it if you tried.”
He heard the oven timer buzzing now to let him know his TV dinner was done cooking, but Tom had lost his appetite. He was going to die on July 23rd, and thanks to his dead brother, he wouldn’t be able to think of anything else until that day. By telling him the date on which he’d die, Henry had made sure Tom could not enjoy the last months of his life.
Goddamn you, Henry.