This is a piece that I submitted for the Austin Chronicle short story competition. You may recognize some excerpts, but here’s the whole thing. I was selected as one of the 10 finalists but in the end, the judges didn’t come through.
The Harmonics Were Off
It was just last week that he wrote a note saying, “Mother, I’m sorry.”
It was just last December that he stepped off a train from New York to Chicago, a short week after he arrived Stateside from Paris. It is a seventeen-hour train ride provided the train stays on the track. This one did not. My brother got home that night with the stupefied grin of a few nights of no sleep. I made a pot of coffee.
“Get this,” he told me. “While we were hiding under blankets knee-deep in snow, the conductor told us his official explanation of what happened. He said that if the wheel of the train were a cookie, the Cookie Monster took a big ol’ bite out of it.’ The wheel froze and broke. You believe that? We spent hours in a wind ridden Ohio field waiting for rescue vehicles. It was so cold,” he said, “it felt like death.”
My sister says she feels like that, now. She tells me this on the phone. We are five minutes away from one another and talk on the phone every night. The phone part is new.
“I simply feel restless,” I tell her. “But it’s not the sort restlessness that causes me to buy plane tickets or throw away half my boxes in storage. It’s not the restlessness that gets piles of years of photos sorted or CDs alphabetized. I find myself a half hour into multiple movies, halfway through multiple books. My kitchen table is covered in enrollment papers never sent in — fully filled out — but never sent in; cooking classes, yoga, wine tasting, dog training courses — and I don’t even have a dog.”
“Oh, you’re getting a dog?” she says. “I hear that’s supposed to be therapeutic.”
“I read something like that too.”
It was just last January that my brother and I moved into our first house together since our parents’ place. This was a real house where the washer and dryer did not have coin slots, where we did not rent the pantry out to art students and where the older woman upstairs did not shuffle her high heels across our ceiling. It had hardwood floors and so much light. I bartended until he woke up, at five in the morning. Our schedules worked perfectly together – for omelets at least. He only liked red pepper omelets. I only liked green pepper omelets. He ate the peppers of mine that went old.
I now cook grand dinners for myself because it is something to do. I barely eat any of it. Yet there is still never enough time in a day. There is always the next five minutes that are far more important than right now, yet never quite happen. The future tense is tough.
I dusted twice this week, everything in the house.
My sister says she wants to come over more but cannot get herself to leave the house. “Not that I can stand it any longer inside,” she tells me. But she never leaves.
“Not even for shopping,” she says.
“Yeah. Retail therapy.” I say, not knowing what I mean.
It was just last March that we both got real jobs. We worked at a Global Media Intelligence Agency, or so we claimed with each phone call. “Hello this is Vasive. We are a Global Media Intelligence Agency and I was wondering if –”
“Vasive. It’s like the last part of the word pervasive. We have offices all over the world… It’s a made-up word. Because of some copyright this and that…”
We each made four hours of those phone calls every day. Eventually it would become invasive.
We made a lot of money at Vasive, at least for us.
My sister and I make lots of non-committal plans, a lot of sometime-next-weeks, but always have the phone to our ears. I have her programmed on my speed dial; number two, after our mother’s old number that is now out of service. But I never use the speed dial.
It was just last April that he quit. He quit because the harmonics were all off. “The heater,” he explained. “It’s loud. You can hear it. You know that buzz? It’s a B-flat. The desktops for the desk kids, you know those? Yeah, the fans in the PC used to keep the modem cool, they buzz at an F. All that’s fine, it’s a perfect fifth. It’s the beanbag laptop kids that ruin it all. Their computer fans buzz at a D-flat. That makes all three into B-flat minor triad. We work in an environment that promotes unrelenting sadness. Imagine working in the first chord of Beethoven’s Fifth constantly. You don’t have to imagine it, you are! Dun dun dun dunnnnn. I just couldn’t do it. So I quit.”
It was last May that he ran out of money. He went to Chinatown and bought a 20-pound bag of brown rice for five dollars. He lived on that for the entire month. He had mason jars full of quarters that he never used. He must have had three-hundred dollars in quarters. “Why not cash in your quarters?” I asked him. “We don’t need them for laundry anymore.”
“Those are bicentennials, all from 1976, the ones with the little drummer on them. Grams used to save them. …I just can’t.”
He had three hundred dollars in quarters from 1976, all with little drummers on them.
Last July, over dinner, my brother asked me if I was depressed.
“Not depressed,” I said, “just restless.”
“Yeah. I’m not depressed, either,” he said, “just melancholic.”
“That’s good though, I guess,” I said.
“Yeah. I’m not depressed,” he asserted.
Realizing he wanted more, “Melancholy is good,” I said. “The questioning of one’s self and one’s place in world, searching for answers to the grander questions…”
“Smart people are dumb,” my brother said.
“Smart people are sad,” I corrected.
My brother was really smart.
Last August, our parents came to visit. They slept in his room. It was cleaner. I always joked that they loved him more. Our mother cried when they first hugged.
While they were there, we shared a room for the first time since our bunk-bedded days of elementary school. I went to tickle him and he tackled me. I cracked a raw egg on his head. He stuck his head in the oven and made me eat the partially-cooked egg white out of his hair. I ate it.
I used to drink coffee every morning and now I drink none. I do not know how to make it. That was his job. He made it before he went to school or work but never drank any, left the pot for me.
When I would wake up early enough, I took the subway with him. He told me of how he sometimes would miss his stop. “Slept right through it,” he would say. I never understood that. He would fall asleep too, when I was there with him. I have to look at the sign at every stop to see where the train is, and then look at the map near the ceiling to see how many stops are left. I need to repeat this at every stop, even if this is the route I take everyday. I inherently know that there are five stops left yet I still check. My brother, he slept through stops. Napping was his way of living in the moment.
I watch a commercial for a motivation speaker who gives big conferences on how to enhance your life. Over slowly intensifying music, a man in the audience admits to wanting to commit suicide. The speaker from the stage, with eyes blazing says, “No! I won’t let you. I won’t let you be that selfish.”
“Do happy people do this thing I do with laundry?” my sister asks.
“What do you do with laundry?”
“I try on outfits, the ones that don’t work, I put in a pile. When I do laundry, if I do laundry,” she corrects herself, “I put all the discarded outfits in with the dirty stuff. I somehow believe in that moment that balling it all up with the rest of my shirts and pants, lugging them down the street, paying money to wash them, wait for them, dry them, wait for them and then haul them home, fold them, and put them away, all that, all that takes less energy than simply folding them and putting them away. Do happy people do that too?”
“You’re not depressed,” I say.
“Yeah. I know. I’m not depressed.”
“And besides, I do the same thing with dishes. Like for my grand dinners, if I don’t use the fork, or the spoon, or the knife that I set, and I rarely do, I still wash all three of them.”
“Are you happy though?” she asks.
The sense of play was what was important. He always said that. Whenever work was terrible or life just too absurd, we would call each other. Not to say I love you or I miss you or even What’s up? We would call on business matters.
“Hello?” I’d answer.
“Yes. This is Todd Struckland from the URCLP and I was calling to find the whereabouts of a manila envelope that I expected to be returned to me after finding its way through your desk. The contents of which will perhaps be the sole factor in deciding our companies’ future relations.”
“Oh yes. Of course,” I was driving at the time with a soon-to-be-confused passenger. “I sent the manila envelope through our private courier. It should be arriving shortly. I wanted, though, to comment to you about a change I believe is necessary in clause 4A sections 13 through Z.”
“The knuckle clause. We call that one the knuckle clause.”
“Then yes, the knuckle clause.”
I would go weeks talking to him every day in exactly this way. When a friend would ask what my brother was up to, I would respond that though I talk to him every day, I honestly had no idea. Often no one did.
We tried to have a barbecue. The neighbors complained. “We don’t like the smell.” I think that was it.
It was last November that maybe he got tired of brown rice. Maybe he got tired of apples growing in supermarkets. Maybe he got tired of billboards or loud motorcycles. Maybe he got tired of not sharing a bed, not having someone’s arms in which to collapse. Maybe he got tired of shaving or the fact that life lacks silence. Maybe it was the rush of it all. Maybe he could no longer take the amount of minor chords in the world. Maybe he got tired of seconds or minutes, or omelets in the morning. How many eggs do we consume in a year? Maybe he forgot about poetry or lulling Sunday afternoons. He must have forgotten about light, leaves, lapsing waves, fog, and the moments right before sleep. Maybe it was that he remembered it all.
My sister always said that my brother saw colors that the rest of us did not, that sight for him was just more vivid and lively. He would get caught up in subtle sights and turned off by loud ones, like a dog who howls at police sirens, the pitch being too intense. That is how neon lighting was for him. She said he felt things deeper than we did and that he always knew when her mood would change, even from a room away.
“Maybe he just needed less,” she says.
“Not more?” I say. “Don’t they usually say that they need more?”
“Not him though,” she says. “I think he needed less.”
Maybe it was that barbeque.
A few weeks back, I took my brother to his favorite restaurant. He fell asleep on the subway, on my shoulder. His hair smelled like product and his head was heavy and I almost missed the stop. At that restaurant there was hot chocolate and it was good and I liked it too. It is thick and dark, bitter and far from a child’s drink. He loved it, he told me, though he could never finish it. I always finished mine. “It’s so good,” he told me, “I just can’t finish it. It’s too much.” I never understood that, nor anyone else that leaves a bite of chocolate cake left, or the last little piece of meat on the plate. If it is so good, you finish it.
I tell my sister about this.
“Maybe everything was like that for him,” she says.
“What do you mean?”
“Like life, maybe it was just so good, rich, for him, that he couldn’t finish it.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Maybe.”
Tonight, when we hang up the phone, I try to see colors that others cannot. I try to have the taste of hot chocolate linger on my tongue and I try to have it be too much. I try to feel textures more with my hand, on the couch, the smoothness of a mirror, and see if candles hide the artificial extremeness of a house fully lit at night. I try to cry at a book and not be able to watch a film because it is too violent. I try to have the cars passing and people talking in the street below be too noisy that I cannot sleep. I try to tune in to what we tune out. I try to understand. I am left with not too much but little more than a focus on the background, losing the now, not embracing it. Time, like music passing, I try to grab the notes a measure back, two beats too late. I grab at time, feeling each footstep of each passerby in the street below. I see their rubber-soled shoes, laces undone. I try to understand.
It was just last week that he wrote a note saying, “Mother, I’m sorry.” He wrote it on the bathroom mirror. There he was, in the glow of Christmas lights from the tree, in the shadows of ornaments made in kindergarten, our boy scout pictures pasted onto snowflakes, his handprint in plaster from preschool, our father’s face on a knight in shining armor, my high school graduation photo, all dangling, dancing in the light illuminating him in the bathtub. I saw him there. My lungs filled with water. I used the sink to help balance. The window was open. It smelled like winter for the first time this year.
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