The first thing I should admit, I guess, is that I’m not smart. It’s always the first obvious thing people figure. Even knowing it’s true I still have this instinct to fight against it, like a touch of stubborn vanity or just basic human dignity clutching on; it ain’t easy to swallow either way. Still, I’m always looking to make sense of it all, if there’s any to be had that is. Takes some questioning, patience and time, probably a better brain than mine but most everyone gets it sooner or later I think. I thought I had a grip but not these days, not since Mom got killed and me and Helen got close.
Dumb as a post, box of rocks, dim bulb – I’ve heard them all and then some. Some people think you can grow a callous to that sort of thing, and maybe some people can. That it just stops hurting like the dead skin at the fingertips that squeeze steel strings against the neck of a guitar. At first it’s tender, tears and bleeds sometimes, but eventually deadness numbs all and the music plays. Not so with me. I avoid playing if I can. When I’m pressed I bleed.
Mom had been suffering through cancer I never even knew she had. I hadn’t lived at home since I was nineteen and I’m more than double that now. Never kept in touch, neither of us interested in building that bridge, I guess. Never ran in the family.
I came home for the funeral by train. Never learned to drive a car – one of those things that persuade people there’s something wrong with me. The station was a swarm of people but as I walked up the platform they opened up in front of me like the sea from that story in the good book. I wasn’t used to so many people but they made it easier. When I came out into the fresh air I spotted Aunt Mary right off, waiting, bundled up in a wool coat and hands in her pockets. She was one of those people; cold all the time. Except for some white hair that used to be dirty blonde and maybe some extra flab around the waist she looked just like my memory said she would.
At her side was a girl of twelve or thirteen. Or maybe she was ten or fifteen. I can’t guess ages, like driving a car. She was distracted, no jacket, a skirt with scabs on one knee and flat-bottom shoes with no socks. She was perched on a huge cement planter, feet dangling and swinging above the ground.
“Over here,” Aunt Mary called, even as I was walking toward her.
I lifted my hand but didn’t quite wave, preoccupied with the girl who still wasn’t looking my way. Maybe she didn’t know Aunt Mary after all but it sure looked like it at first.
“I knew that was you, boy,” Aunt Mary said.
I nodded. “When’s the funeral?” The straps of the duffel bag had pressed into sharp edges and were digging into my fingers. Aunt Mary didn’t answer, ignoring me as she tended to do, and turned to the girl.
“This here is Helen,” she said. The girl glanced slightly at me but the sun setting behind me must’ve blinded her some because her eyes went narrow as needles and she puckered up in a wince. She didn’t say anything.
“She’s your sister,” Aunt Mary said, shocking me into a stupid, grave expression that must’ve put the girl off some. “Well, half-sister more precise,” she added.
Helen was fourteen as it turned out which made me feel just a little bit better about my intuitive ability. Aunt Mary drove us to Mom’s house, the old house, what I still couldn’t help thinking of as home, while Helen sat in the passenger seat. I sat in the middle of the huge bench seat in back, one side of both their faces visible at all times, my duffle bag and briefcase in the trunk. Just two bags could hold my whole life.
Helen was Mom’s daughter by another man who wasn’t the marrying kind. Dad was still the only legal man in her life. Reflecting on it now as an adult she was so young, just twenty when she had me, just six years older than Helen. This little girl with scabs on her knees and the smell of bubble gum on her breath could be a mom in just a few years. Hell, she could be a mother already. Made me realize how old I was still with no kids, no wife. That didn’t strike me as a bad thing, necessarily, just less on the scorecard. And Mom was just fifty-five when she passed on. I wasn’t even fifteen years away from fifty five. Would I be gone that soon? I’m not much good with numbers.
“What’s your name?” I heard from the front seat, a voice distinctly not Aunt Mary’s. Helen had interrupted her wet bubble gum smacking long enough to ask me a question that Aunt Mary had neglected to answer for her.
“Duck?” she said. I couldn’t tell if she was mocking my voice. People do that.
“Douglas,” I enunciated. “But people call me Doug.”
“Can I call you Ducky?” she said, playfully. She’d tell me later that it was a name she’d heard in some old movie. Again, I couldn’t tell what was behind it, cruel or kind, but there was something endearing about it. Maybe it was the youth in her voice. Nobody ever nicknamed me before, nothing that wasn’t mean. But Ducky wasn’t like that. It seemed toothless, so I didn’t argue.
Helen was off school between her freshman and sophomore years at Leeman High. I hadn’t gone to Leeman, wasn’t smart enough. Mom kept me around the house to do errands; stuff she didn’t want to do, easy things, things that required muscle or time and some amount of perseverance. I never got any allowance and never asked for one. I wouldn’t know what to do with it if I got one, she’d say. I could never really be trusted much back then.
Aunt Mary served up a reheated dinner when we got home – sliced turkey, brown gravy and mashed potatoes, a basket of rolls in the center of the table and no butter. She poured three glasses of ice water and set the table with paper plates and little square party napkins with Happy Birthday printed on them.
“Mom went peacefully?” I said. There hadn’t been such talk on the car ride, certainly not about Mom. Aunt Mary didn’t answer. She sipped some water.
“She was pretty sick,” Helen said, which I took as a maybe.
“When’s the funeral?” I said.
“Tomorrow at one,” Aunt Mary said. “I hope you have a suit.”
I shook my head but Aunt Mary didn’t see me, cutting into her turkey.
“I was hoping Uncle Mike could lend me one,” I said. At first Aunt Mary’s hesitation made me think perhaps Uncle Mike was no longer around to lend me anything let alone a suit and I felt that familiar embarrassment sink in. It was like the Pine-Sol smell and the milky light through the old fixtures; just part of being home.
“I’m not going to ask him for you,” she said.
“Have you ever been to a funeral?” Helen asked.
It took me longer than an intelligent person to realize she was addressing me.
“Yeah, a few,” I said.
“Do people get all sad? Do they cry?”
I didn’t look to Aunt Mary. “Sometimes.”
“I think I might.” There was a curious detachment in Helen. I tried to reassure her, support her, but she didn’t seem to hear me. She worked down some mashed potatoes and started cutting into her turkey. “No one else seems too broken up around here,” she said.
Now I glanced at Aunt Mary who was glaring at Helen. There had been something flip and in the remark, the distinct family-brand of passive aggression that hangs in the nose like sewage. She’d said something without saying it, an art mastered by the females of my clan, and only she and Aunt Mary knew what it was. If Mom had been present she would’ve too.
The viewing came first at the Russell Funeral Home, the last of such places I’d been to in my life. I didn’t make a habit of attending these things having been just five years old when Grandpa died, Mom’s dad. Then when I was eight his brother, Donald, kicked it and I paid my second visit. I remembered almost nothing aside from the room that seemed a lot to me like the cafeteria at my grammar school except for the coffee machine, and of course the body on display in the coffin at the front of the next room. People were divided into those who were living and dead, those who were gone and those who’d be staying. There are few places in the world where I could sense black and white more acutely.
I wasn’t able to borrow a suit from Uncle Mike or anyone else so I stopped by the Goodwill in town. I found a wool navy two-piece that fit well enough and selected a plain black tie. I needed something black.
I couldn’t believe how different Mom looked. She was an unclean white like old newsprint and the ridges and valleys in her face and hands had an exaggeration to them. Her mouth and eyes were closed just like Grandpa and Uncle Donald – no windows left open to the soul. I knelt and prayed beside her but couldn’t bring myself to touch her, to grip her hand in mine, a final parting gesture. I tried, truly, but just couldn’t.
I retreated to the only other room that had survived in my memory, the cafeteria, and drank coffee from a little Styrofoam cup. People, not many, but those who either knew me firsthand or were introduced by other kin offered condolences. I wasn’t used to people feeling sorry for me and I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t feel a certain satisfaction, selfish as it may have been.
No one sat with me, however, until Helen dropped into the chair next to mine as if she’d parachuted out of the sky. She sat with her body square to me as though ready to launch into conversation, but said nothing. Just stared blankly, the kind I’d seen many times, full of expectation. I was supposed to say something, to engage, to get the ball rolling. Just like Mom, I thought.
“Are you okay?” I said.
As she nodded the look on her face didn’t change.
“Are you?” she said.
“I’m all right.”
“Are you sad?”
I felt like the conversation that had ended at the dining room table at home the night before had just picked back up. The odd, needling words and considerations pouring again like water from a spout.
“It’s a sad day.”
“Don’t you think so?”
“I know it should be,” she said, shifting in her chair, swinging a leg underneath her and sitting on one foot. Her hands gripped the edges of her chair, her arms stiff. “I know that. But I just don’t feel it, really. Maybe it’s shock or something.”
“I guess it could be.”
“You really think so?”
My eyes squeezed a little. “Do I think what?”
“Do you think you’re in shock?”
“Doesn’t feel like it,” I said.
“I don’t either. I think we feel the same, you and me.”
“What makes you say that?”
For the first time she looked away, her head turning, eyes landing on nothing in particular. “I just feel that way. At dinner last night, talking, watching, listening, I just felt like you’re different.”
“In a good way, I hope,” I said, trying to smile.
She turned back and nodded again. “Different like me.”
“And what’s so different about you?”
“I think you know, Ducky,” she said, playful again. Ducky. I really didn’t like that.
“How could I? I mean, we just met.”
“But we are brother and sister,” she said. “Shouldn’t we just know things about each other the way other brothers and sisters do?”
I didn’t agree but didn’t contradict her, and for the rest of that day we were inseparable. When I rose from the table, she rose. She walked where I walked and asked me questions. We stood side by side at the graveyard and watched as our mother was lowered into the rectangular gap. She wanted to hold my hand, she said, and interlocked her fingers with mine. I felt her squeeze as the priest stumbled and fretted over his reading and sermon, distracted by something. There had already been words at the funeral home; kind, human, compassionate words, but now we all bowed our heads for chapter and verse. There was nothing but the droning, reciting voice and the touch of my little sister’s fingers mingled with mine for those few seconds, and I couldn’t help but feel my heart swelling. I heard her words from the funeral home in my mind eclipsing everything else, that brothers and sisters should know things about each other. My little sister wanted to know me, her big brother, Ducky, and I began to feel tears for the first time. But not out of sorrow.
The services were over and forgotten almost as quickly as they started. Aunt Mary drove us home, we changed clothes and Helen went immediately out to find friends and kill time. I went about chores Aunt Mary needed done around the house; replacing light bulbs, polishing furniture, sanding handrails and painting over rough patches in her bedroom walls. I was the village grunt again. There was no talk about Mom or the service or the attendees or the sermon or any of what had brought me in the first place.
For me there was no deadline – no day and time when my two bags needed to be packed and ready for transporting on another train back to where I came from. There was no job, no boss or colleagues eagerly awaiting my return and no place for me to be greeted by friends. I was in the place of my childhood, one I didn’t particularly want to dwell on. But now there was Helen, and she’d become large in my mind. She had no school and wouldn’t for at least another month. I never bothered to ask when classes would start back up. The further off the better as far as I was concerned.
In the week after our mother died Helen and I began to know things about each other. We passed each other during the day when Aunt Mary was up and about, but once she’d gone to bed, at least shut her bedroom door, Helen opened hers and I slipped through it. I sat on the floor, Indian-style most times while she laid flat on her stomach on her bed, bare feet swaying dreamily past each other through the air, back and forth.
She was no good at math. English was her favorite subject and she loved to read poetry. I knew what made her feel stupid, the girl’s name at school who made her feel inferior, and where she was able to buy illegal cigarettes and sneak booze. And she knew about the odd jobs I’d done and the places I’d lived, how I had struggled with the bottle like Dad. I made a joke about it that made her laugh – that I didn’t really struggle but had a firm grip on it. We talked about our weaknesses, the things we were afraid of, the things that embarrassed us and made us feel like we deserved more.
We skirted talk about Mom, about our lives with her, not finding much good. Finally, some sort of tingling like guilt or morality made me dress it down, stamp it out, knowing both our tongues would only end up dripping poisonous like snakes. We’d talk about her cruelty and what made it tick as regular as a clock, how she was no happier than she made us, that misery loves company, and what better company than family, than children? But the dead deserve respect, even if they didn’t before they left.
On our fourth night she asked if I was planning to leave and I told her I wasn’t sure. She said she didn’t want me to. On the fifth night she asked me another question. She’d heard Aunt Mary and Mom talking about me once, years ago when she was still in grammar school. Mom referred to me just once by name, Douglas, but after that again and again called me her orange chaser.
“What’s that mean?” Helen asked me.
It actually took me a moment to recall the meaning myself. Once, I told her, when I was just a baby, Mom brought home some groceries and the oranges broke through a tear in one of the paper bags and rolled down an imperceptible tilt in the floor toward the refrigerator. It doubtless is still tilted to this day. I asked Helen if she’d ever noticed. I took one of the oranges in my little hand, crawled to the door and rolled it, and crawled after it until it stopped, crawled back and did it again. Mom said I smiled and laughed and squealed but it brought her no joy to recount it. It was amusement for my infantile mind that wouldn’t progress much further as I grew up. I only continued until I was two or three years old, but Mom called me her orange chaser until I was twelve or thirteen.
I asked her what it meant one day, just as Helen asked me. She said she called me her orange chaser because she couldn’t make sense of me, because I did strange things. I played funny games. I had a funny mind. She said I’d never be a man, only a baby in a man’s body chasing oranges on a tilted floor, something too pathetic to be cute.
By the time I finished my story Helen’s face had a somber look to it.
I’d been at the house over a week before Aunt Mary sent me out to the shed for anything. I spent six nights; two, three, sometimes even four hours in Helen’s room talking, sharing things about ourselves, trusting each other, things that human nature dictates you not share at all, not with anyone. We came to be brother and sister. I came to know her more than anyone I’d ever known. All I wanted to do every day was to give to her and receive from her and feel the desire well up in me to share again and to receive again and to share and receive. Breathe in. Breathe out. Life was beautiful. Helen was beautiful.
The lawn needed mowing, Aunt Mary said. There hadn’t been much rain in the month of July and the yard was patched with dry yellow. The dandelion fluff had been spreading over the yard so there was weeding to be done too. The mower was out of gas, but there was a gas can, I knew, on one of the shelves. I didn’t notice until I’d filled up the tank and was replacing the can that another small cylindrical container rested on the same shelf. It looked different than everything else; no dust on top or rust at the base or faded print on the label. It was an almost brand new bottle of rat poison and it had been opened.
“We got rats?” I asked Aunt Mary, coming in from mowing almost two hours later.
“What’re you talking about?”
“I said you had rats ‘round here?”
“Rats,” she said, gruff. “You see a rat somewhere?”
“No, I…” I hesitated and thought. I thought about the bottle, the newness of it. It was open but still almost full. I thought of the only other person who could’ve opened it.
“You see a rat in the shed, boy?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “Don’t mind me.”
Mom had been sick for a while. She got diagnosed as terminal and was laid up for the next few weeks, Helen and Aunt Mary caring for her. They fed her, gave her meds, what moral support they could. But there was an open bottle of rat poison on the shelf in the shed that wasn’t used for killing no rats.
After mowing the yard and talking to Aunt Mary, I took a walk up the path I’d ridden my dirt bike on as a kid. I’d ride toward the woods and just listen to the bugs and the rustling of the animals in the leaves and the fallen branches and twigs. It was sanctuary.
Along the way I bumped into Helen who was riding her bike home just like I used to do. I didn’t have the guts to flag her down.
“Hey Ducky,” she said with a big smile, sliding to a dusty stop.
“We got rats?” I said.
“Aunt Mary didn’t know about the rats,” I said.
Then a look, a kind of darkness, came over her. And I knew. We just looked at each other, quiet, with the same look in our eyes and we shared the truth the way brothers and sisters are supposed to. I knew what she’d done. I could even imagine why.
“She was real sick,” she finally said, almost whispering.
I didn’t say nothing else. Neither of us did. We walked home together, me alongside her, she alongside her bike. I knew what she’d done even if I didn’t make her say it. I didn’t need to hear it. I didn’t understand and knew I never would. It’s one of those truths that I talked about before, the ones that are hard to swallow.
I was Mom’s orange chaser because I’m slow-witted. I was a disappointment. But she did more to me than disappoint, and I can only imagine what Helen’s fourteen years had been like with her and Aunt Mary. We were all orange chasers, really, all three of us. We all did what we did to each other and I don’t know if that was a choice or something else. I don’t know why she hated us both, or if she even did hate us at all. I just know how it felt, and I know how what Helen done makes me feel.
I don’t know where I’d go or what I’d do if I left, so I’ve decided to stay. I want to see Helen in a gown and a cap with one of those dangly things on it, graduating like I never did. I want to see her date boys and learn to drive and go to college. I need to have her in my life, my little orange chaser. I love her. I’ve figured that much.
Bill Surdenik lives in a western suburb of Chicago with his wife and son. He has published short fiction online and has recently completed work on a novel.