January 17, 2014
It’s not a grrr or a ruff-ruff. Nor is it a yip of a small dog all high-pitched and whiny, or even the menacing growl of a monster dog coming straight up from its paws and the tip of the tail-rip your head off kind of life-threatening bark. But it’s a bark just the same. That’s how my brother Shelly talks. He barks. That kind of bark.
“Hi. How’s it going?” I’ll ask him when he calls.
“How do you think it’s going? Can’t you tell just by looking? You saw me just yesterday. My hair’s thinning and I’ve put on three more pounds. Don’t you pay any attention?” He barks.
“Other than that?” I ask.
“What do you mean? My job? You know what a putz my boss is. Do you think that he’s going to change overnight? Things suck. My daughter wants to start dating . . .”
“So what. You want me to be as liberal as you? Fat chance. You sound like Monica. She says that we should have let Tippy date last year.”
“Well what? Who’s she to listen to? Even her cooking has gone to hell. Who’s she that I have to listen to her?”
“Your wife, that’s who, and what’s wrong with your meals? Monica’s a great cook.”
“Yeah that’s what everyone says. Great Monica this. . . wonderful Monica that . . . but none of you guys have to live with her.”
“What does that have to do with your meals?”
“I’ll tell you what. I think she’s trying to kill me. Just about every dinner Monica cooks she leaves out one of the basic food groups.”
“I’ve got to run - someone’s at the door.” I tell him, thinking that I can’t listen to this man barking out his end of the conversation over the phone and that Monica would be justified in killing him. She should give him a milk bone tranquilizer, take him to the vet and have him put to sleep.
“I didn’t hear the doorbell,” my brother snarls.
“It’s broken,” I tell him. “I see someone standing at the door.”
“Screw-em. They’re probably collecting for something.—some pinko cause or Jehovah Witness. Screw-em.”
“I’ve got to run.” I say. “I’ll call you next week.”
/ / / / /
I was sitting reading an Archie comic, minding my own business, when Shelly came into the room having just finished four hours of homework and I wasn’t even contemplating doing mine when he plopped down and without apologizing for interrupting or saying excuse me and out of the clear blue, with no warning whatsoever asked me what my favorite word was and before I could think about the question, the answer, or what the hell he was talking about he said, “Serene is my favorite word and there’s no other word in the world that sounds like what the word means like serene and you can try to come up with your own word until you’re fifty and just getting out of high school and you’ll never even come close so you’re a loser once again.”
I looked at him as he sat gloating and I thought “dork.” I knew that dork said it all but he came up with the concept first as he always did and where did he find time to do this kind of stuff when he was always studying or reading and it was only important to him but he would lord it over me and make me feel like a dummy as he did when he started in on my favorite number and color at different times. He didn’t wait for an answer then either but proceeded to expound on his numbers and colors and how anyone who picked something different or had not already picked their favorite was a loser. I once caught him off guard when the radio was playing and told him that the song playing was the best song ever written and my favorite for now and all times and he looked at me and said “big deal”, and walked off. I couldn’t win. I couldn’t place or show either.
/ / / /
Shelly and I live in the same town but call each other more than we see each other. We communicate because we are brothers, not because we like each other. Shelly called me a few weeks ago and asked, “Do you remember the box of letters and stuff I took home after Mom died and we were going to go through her stuff the next time we got together?”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ve been looking forward to it; why do you ask?”
“Well, I was sitting around watching a boring ball game when I remembered the box so I got up and opened it and read while I was watching TV.”
“Not fair! We were supposed to do that together.” I said.
“Too late now so don’t whine or I won’t tell you what I found,” he snarled.
“That stinks.” I said. “That really stinks.”
“You know what really stinks? He asked.
“I’m not going to let you see Mom’s diary. That’s what really stinks.”
“Mom kept a diary?”
“Yep. And there’s a recurrent theme running through it, but it’ll only make you feel bad if I tell you.”
“Well I’ll read it myself.”
“No you won’t,” Barked Shelly.
“On page one Mom says not to let you read her diary.”
“That’s bullshit!” I shout. I’m playing into his hand but I can’t help it. “That’s bullshit! Why would mom say that? Besides, I don‘t believe you.”
“Mom says in the diary that I shouldn’t mention any of this because you wouldn’t believe it. I haven’t read it all but I think you were adopted or dropped on your head a few times when you were real young.”
“I want to see that box of stuff,” I tell him firmly.
“Eat me,” he says.
“Shelly-I’m warning you. This time I really mean it.”
“Mom said in her diary that no matter how much you threaten me I shouldn’t give in to your bullying.”
/ / / / /
Shelly not only barks but he has brought new meaning to the term body language. I know what he’s going to say before he says it. He uses eyebrow language, squint language, sneer, leer, eye and nostril flare language. Then he adds color. The color is always red. I can tell at what stage of bark he’s going to start out on. Like a thermometer I can watch the red rise from underneath his collar and travel up to his receding hairline. He has a hair-trigger lip and telegraphs his verbal punches with a nostril flare, red neck rising or whatever, if you ask him a question or make a statement that he can pounce on to show you how stupid you are.
This is one of the reasons I call and don’t visit that often. As soon as I see the combination of his lower lip quiver and his right eye twitch I know that he’s going to call me a stupid bastard. So when I see this and I say, “Don’t even think of calling me a stupid bastard.” He responds by saying “Only a stupid bastard would say something like that without being provoked.” But after all these years I know and he knows that I know and we both know that he’s going to one-up me and I just don’t want to be around him.
I know he’s making up the whole thing about my mother’s diary but it’s driving me crazy so I get in my car and drive over to his house and he answers the door in his pajamas and says, “I knew you were going to come over here.”
“You couldn’t have known,” I tell him. “I just decided fifteen minutes ago myself—so don’t think that you’re so smart.”
“Obviously I know you better that you know yourself,” he says with a smugly bark.
“Give me the box with Mom’s stuff in it,” I tell him.
“Why? I’m tired and I want to go to bed.”
He’s about to say more but he looks at me and I’m giving off some hostile body language myself and he turns and walks into the den. I follow. He opens a closet and takes out the cardboard box with our mother’s stuff and it’s partially taped up and I ask him, “What about the diary?”
I notice by the sneer he’s about to say what diary and call me a boob but he thinks better of it and then decides to go for it anyway.
“You boob,” he says. “You’re so gullible.”
“You mean that you made the whole thing up about opening the box and the diary and all that?” I ask incredulously.
“Yeah,” he barks, “I was bored and wanted to see if you were still at the same level of stupidity. I didn’t think that it was possible but you’ve gone up a notch.”
I’m ready to swing at him but instead I grab the box and head for the door.
“Hey where are you going with that? We’re supposed to open it together.” He moves between the door and me and I glare at him and he retreats off to one side as I kick open the screen door busting the handle with my heel of my shoe.
I hear him swearing at me as I head for my car and I feel the anger welling up in me because I know that he was Mom’s favorite, but I also know that she would never say those things about me and she wasn’t the kind to keep a diary either. What a rat-bastard brother. When I get home I throw an ice cube into a glass and top it off with Dewars and then rip the tape off the box and sit down on the couch. I take a healthy swallow to calm my nerves, and then another. I ignore the bulldog voice of my brother yelling through the answering machine resting only ten feet away, and I open the box. The phone rings again and again its Shelly threatening me and I do my best to ignore him and I look around at the contents in the box. I see some jewelry cases, a couple of photo albums, Mom’s high school graduation picture and diploma, a spiral notebook and other assorted small containers and trinkets.
Nostalgically I look through these things and linger over an old photo album of Mom as a teen. I’m feeling kind of mushy with the Dewars and all. I pick up the spiral notebook, flip open the cover and begin to read; “Shelly, this is my diary. Do not let your brother read this . . .”