Back in Calhoun, my brother Corey’s wife ran out on him. He hadn’t seen her for weeks. What this meant for me was the death of a fantasy where I’d spend Christmas with my own family in St. Louis, sitting around eating cocktail shrimp in slippers, new wife on my lap and a fresh dusting of snow outside, our small gaggle from previous marriages slaughtering Nazis on the Xbox.
Ma crushed these dreams with one phone call saying my brother’s wife Karla left without warning and took Corey’s wallet, which he’d left in his pants, piled in the bathroom like normal.
Me and Ma agreed that he’d had it coming a long time. She got excited as she spoke. Old resentments flared up. The edges of her voice frayed. “That’s what he gets for leaving laundry around. He never learned to take care of himself.”
“Ma, your heart,” I said. “Breathe.”
Ma hadn’t actually seen Corey since Thanksgiving. “He acted scared and sullen, like we were holding him hostage.”
He was still staying with Celine, his mother-in-law, where he and Karla had lived in the basement for a few years. She must have known exactly where Karla was but kept quiet about it.
Ma got control of her feelings. “I’m worried, and Dad won’t let him come around here. You need to talk to him.”
When I got to Celine’s, she came out of her house and hugged me. She smelled like burnt hair, Cheyenne smoke, and powder makeup. An alimony deal with Karla’s father had shielded her from work, so she’d always seemed pampered and luxurious and ready to drag you into her bedroom.
“Where’s doofus?” I asked.
“He’s hurting,” Celine said. She looked around to make sure he wasn’t within earshot. “I’m not trying to be melodramatic, but he cannot stay here.” She led me to the living room, where Corey got up to shake my hand.
“You look awful,” I said. He didn’t actually look that bad.
“Where did you get the money for the coat?” he asked.
“My job,” I said. It was a nice leather bomber bought secondhand. The truth was that my wife and my ex-wife ran me dry, and I’d borrowed money from my boss for the trip home. For my pride’s sake, he’d called it a Christmas bonus, but of course I was expected to pay it back. I couldn’t commiserate with Corey on the million indignities of work because he’d never held down a job, even for a month. He had no sense of the social totem pole, what Ma called the nobility of the Lawson spirit at odds with circumstance (at the bottom of the totem pole).
“How much are you lifting now?” I squeezed a wiry bicep.
“Not much,” he said.
“You didn’t waste energy shoveling the walk.”
As teenagers, he’d put Eazy-E in his Discman and lift weights every night while our father spotted him and counted reps—a weird silent bonding ritual. I witnessed it a few times and then tried to forget about it.
When he got started with Karla—a young chick, of course—similar self-motivation levels made cohabitation a no-brainer, and they moved into Celine’s basement. Ma and I saw it as a step in the right direction. He still lived in a basement, but at least it didn’t belong to his parents.
Celine left us alone and busied herself in the kitchen.
“What did you say to scare Karla off?” I lowered my voice to nothing.
“I said I needed space.”
I fought back laughter. That was my brother for you. “Did you apologize? Before she left, I mean.” I knew apologizing never would have crossed his mind. I just wanted to plow through this stuff and head for Sapients at Charlie’s Saloon. “I mean, assuming it was your fault.”
He refused to look me in the eye. This capacity for shame was new.
“You really loved her,” I said.
Cecile reappeared, leaning in the jamb between the kitchen and the living room. “Take him out,” she said. “Go catch up.” She wore a bathrobe over her jeans and sweatshirt. Michigan women never rank high enough when people discuss the all-time beauties.
Against my better judgment, I invited her to come with us.
“I’m so tired. You’d better take your bag, Corey. You’ll be staying in your brother’s hotel for a few nights, yeah?”
“Actually, I planned to stay at home,” I said. “I mean Mom and Dad’s house.”
Corey shrugged. He went into the basement to get his things around.
While he was in the other room, Cecile came close to me. “He has to leave. I won’t see Karla again until he’s gone.”
Corey returned with a large gym bag slung over his shoulder. “I could live out of this thing.”
Celine approached him. She patted his collar and placed both hands on his shoulders. “Be good, honey. Think about how your actions affect other people.”
I had a bad tendency to answer for him. “It’s only a couple of beers.”
We went to Charlie’s, where I had worked bussing tables as a teenager. It had been our favorite spot for years.
“You’re not going to like this,” Corey said as we approached. “It’s called Mike’s Place now.”
Mike’s crew had torn out the drop ceilings and spread glossy black paint over the ductwork. They’d pulled out the ancient carpet and installed a knotty hardwood ash. There were hanging lamps and linen napkins. “Some bar,” I said. In truth, Mike’s wasn’t much different from the place where my wife and I went when our exes had all the kids.
We arrived early enough that there were still families eating. With the work week finished, you could feel the buzz of hard-won leisure.
The bartender had that rushed bartender voice. “Got your IDs, guys?”
“Funny,” Corey said. “You remember me?”
The bartender tried to remember him, and then he did, but his remembering didn’t have the effect Corey wanted, and he was refused service. I tried to vouch. “His wife stole his wallet. He’s having a rough week. Come on.” I held out a twenty.
“I don’t need you to defend me,” Corey spat.
The bartender—a kid, really—put his hands in the air defensively. “This isn’t Charlie’s anymore.”
Charlie’s would have served anyone able enough to hoist themselves onto a barstool. The old staff knew us, our parents, our drinks. The Lawsons had helped settle Calhoun. Lawson bones were spread all over the county. We had a right to drink here.
Corey finally settled for Diet Pepsi. “You know,” he said, “this always happens when we’re together. Something about you coming around. Everyone treats me like a child.”
I could decide to let these comments slip through me. I focused on the bass reverberating up through my feet. I ordered gin and soda. “You don’t know that bartender?”
“He saw me here last week blubbering about Karla. We had a fucking heart-to-heart. These kids, it’s like they see you once and forget you.”
We sat watching a TV mounted above rows of backlit liquor bottles. I motioned to the kid behind the bar again and ordered burgers. Corey said he wasn’t hungry.
“Then they’re both for me,” I said.
People don’t believe what happened next. First, a man walked past us and patted Corey on the shoulder but didn’t stop to talk. He ordered from the opposite end of the bar, where the bartender washed glasses. “He knows me,” Corey yelled, pointing excitedly. “He can vouch.” But the man just shook his head, mouthing something to the bartender.
When the man walked past us again, followed by a waiter with a tray of brimming sodas, he laid a five-dollar bill on the bar in front of Corey. I pushed it toward the bartender, thinking it was a tip.
I watched the man walk back to his table, to what appeared to be a birthday party. A couple of kids had made a mess of their ketchup and fries. A baby sunk her hands into chocolate cake.
The bartender nudged the bill toward my brother. “He left it for you.”
Something about this didn’t make sense. I couldn’t imagine anyone paying Corey for any legitimate reason. “What’s that about?”
“He owed me.”
“For what? Are you selling drugs to yuppies?”
He waved the bill around in the air. “What drugs cost five dollars? I’d love to know where one finds drugs for five dollars.”
“I don’t know. You know I don’t know.” Now I felt heated. “Give it to me.”
“I’m not giving it to you.” Corey folded the bill lengthwise and put it on the bar. When I tried to grab it, he snatched it away. “Hands off my cash.”
The bartender came with our food and more drinks. Corey bowed his head. He’d no doubt gotten this from Ma, who always feigned piety in unholy places. It was embarrassing when she did it but totally ridiculous to see it from Corey.
“Do you have to draw so much attention?” I asked.
“I’m giving thanks.” He pulled the band from his silverware, checked the cleanliness of the knife and fork, and waved down the bartender. “Lots of hot sauce, please.”
“You should give me thanks. I’m going to pay for it.” I felt my face getting red as Corey drowned his fries in Tabasco. “Better yet, thank the bartender. He works for a living.”
“What do you do? You sell sham insurance out of some guy’s garage.”
“I take care of a bunch of people that would be helpless otherwise.” I meant my family and my ex, of course, not my customers. I held a finger up for the bartender for another drink. “I’m going to piss.” I stood up, and, voila, I was tipsy. Just like that. I walked out the side door, wrote my initials in the snow like I was still a kid. My car was in view, and I could’ve just driven off, down Michigan Avenue to eastbound 94, through Gary and past the steel refineries, down southbound 55 all the way to St. Louis, all the way to my shitty apartment, where I could still spend an hour or so in bed with my petty, backstabbing, absolutely gorgeous wife.
But I went back inside, more determined now. I went up to the table of the man who’d given Corey the five, some moneyed dweeb in a starched shirt and a formless sweater vest.
“I figured he could use the money,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m being accused of.”
“You’re mistaking him for someone else.”
“That’s Corey Roberts, isn’t it?” he said. “Nice guy.” A waiter came with a tray of food, and there was some confusion about which plate belonged to which person.
“Let me help,” I said. “I used to work here. Who ordered what?” I began serving the table.
“He’s been coming in here, maybe drunk, maybe manic,” the guy said, “asking for money, getting people to buy him drinks.” The man looked familiar now that he’d had my full attention for a few moments.
“Do I know you?”
“You’re the other Roberts. Travis? It’s so good to see you’ve come back around to take care of things—to take care of your brother.”
By now, other people throughout the dining area were holding their drinks in the air at me, trying to get a refill, thinking I was still one of the staff. “Corey. Yes. I’m here to talk some sense into him.”
“That’s cool of you. Do your folks still live in the haunted place up on the hill? We always said it was haunted.” The guy laughed. The house we were raised in always frightened the neighborhood kids. It stood at an angle, set back from the road in opaque shadows, shedding paint and overgrown with shrubs. Our friends had refused to come over after dark.
An uneasiness seeped into his voice. He reached up and pulled me in close. “He used to do a little work for me under the table. I’m not a bad guy.” He stopped, as though considering this last statement. “Does he need more?”
I should have left. I should have walked Corey home, hidden him, protected him. I found myself in this situation again and again, where I had everything I needed, while Corey struggled against some pain inside himself just outside my reach. How much of my good fortune was dumb luck? How much was something darker?
I smiled at the man. “Sir, whatever you could spare would be greatly appreciated.”
He slipped a $50 bill in my shirt pocket. “It’s the holidays,” he said.
It was impossible to be discreet now. Everyone sitting around us had seen. Back at the bar, Corey’s plate was empty. He’d finished my drink, too. I could see the kid behind the counter was oblivious. This sort of oversight was how Corey got his way.
I sat down and ordered another. I’d already switched from Sapient to Popov. Now I switched from Popov to Bombay. “This one’s for me, you thief.” I knew he wouldn’t say anything about the man.
“What about me?”
“The big question of the night, laid bare. What about Corey? Slow down. Digest. You were hungry.”
“I eat constantly. None of it sticks.” Corey’s eyes swam in their sockets, bright red. His voice wavered and then cracked wide open. “I want a damn drink.”
“You really ought to rest,” I said. “It’s affecting your looks.”
We sat, immersed in the warm screen-glow, enveloped in the laughter of women. I picked a fight with him about something insignificant. That’s how it always started with us. This time, it was the size of Ma’s feet, and it ended with our voices raised, first with laughter, then with threats of violence. It was all sort of a joke, but we got a little too loose with our jostling. The kid behind the counter asked both of us to leave, followed us out, and, as a counterpoint to our protests, split my brother’s lip open with his fist.
“You understand now?” he asked.
“Easy,” I said. “He’s harmless.”
“Why does everyone always say that?” Corey asked. Blood bubbled in the spaces between his teeth. He began to sing, “Do you really want to hurt me?”
I’d forgotten until then what a promising singer he’d been as a child, how resonant an instrument he had there between his lungs and his skull, the steadiness, the grief and exuberance of all great singers. I laughed. “You moron. I don’t know how you haven’t gotten yourself killed yet.”
He laughed, too. His amazing, wide-open, bottomless laugh.
We left my car near Mike’s and walked toward Ma’s place. We weren’t exactly wasted, but the air felt good. I told Corey we could relax and have a gin. Something about gin and Christmas just fits.
I carried his bag as we walked down the road we grew up on. The power lines sagged under the weight of the snow. Little cones of it had gathered at the tops of the telephone poles. Everything dripped. We’d gone above freezing.
“You remember Ted?” I asked. We walked past Ted Gallagher’s, where he grew up and still lived with his widowed mother. Ted pulled a lever at a fiberglass factory now, itching for redeployment to Afghanistan, slow-driving down the Michigan Avenue strip every night with those noxious florescent undercarriage lights on his daisy-yellow late-model Mustang, absolutely out of his mind in Calhoun.
“That motherfucker could sing,” Corey said.
“That’s not what I’m talking about.” There was nowhere for Corey to go but home. He could run, but after a while, he’d peter out and come back. I saw it happen to guys my age all the time. I wanted to find some way to explain to Corey that he didn’t exist in a vacuum, that he felt inept because he surrounded himself with people who reminded him, every day, of his incompetence. It hadn’t occurred to him that we needed him to be like this.
When we arrived at Ma’s, I stopped to piss on the birch in the front yard. Corey said the place looked good. White lights spiraled up the pine outside his old bedroom window, a tree which, as a teenager, he’d climbed from at night, not to sneak off with his friends, but to brood alone by the river.
Tonight, I had to hold his shoulder as we stumbled up the driveway, the walked-over snow packed with dad’s boot prints. I went to get the key from under an old planting pot, where they’d always kept it.
“It isn’t there anymore,” he said. “I can’t go in.”
“I’m not allowed here. He won’t let you in if you’re with me, either.”
“Sure they will. You know how they talk. They always say stuff like that.”
His face was changing shape from the bartender’s blow. It swelled and purpled in the cold. “I don’t think you understand. Dad’s got a restraining order.” He seemed to drift away from me as he spoke. “You can’t just show up and play hero. It’s too late.”
“Mom told me to come.”
“Mom’s off on her own planet. You have no idea.”
He told me to go inside. He walked away, more himself, somehow, in retreat. It had finished snowing. It was just starting to rain. I remembered the old non-joke: if you don’t like the weather in Michigan, just wait twenty minutes.
Corey had run off before but never made it outside Calhoun. He never really disappeared like some people do, like part of me hoped he would.
Once, Ma answered the doorbell to find him shoeless and sockless, smeared with mud, mumbling something about how everything had changed, how he couldn’t see himself sticking around Calhoun for another year.