The Ties That Bind

Fiction by Colin Brightwell

My half-brother’s parole officer called me up. Said Sean was getting out of the joint and had listed me as next-of-kin, that he needed a place to stay while he reentered society. I hadn’t seen the kid since he was a baby. Our old man, the bastard, died halfway through Sean’s sentence. I didn’t want to do it. I was glad the old bastard was dead and didn’t want to lay claim to another piece of him. I’d burned everything else. Mary told me before she left that I just didn’t give a shit about anyone. I’d cleaned enough toilets and puke at Murphy’s that Colleen could vouch for my changed character. I told the parole office to have the convict meet me at Murphy’s whenever he got out.

He showed up Thursday evening. I’d just finished my shift, and was coming up from the basement after restocking the kegs. Sweat dripped down my face and I smelled like the king of beers. Checked my phone and saw that it was gonna frost overnight. Hoped it would wait until I got home so I could cover the last of my tomatoes. They were almost ready to pick.

Sean sat at the middle of the bar and flirted with Colleen. Never let go of his High Life, like he was scared someone would come over, shank him, finish it themselves. Colleen had Springsteen going. My lower back twisted and cursed me for this line of work. Even from behind I knew it was him. He looked like the old bastard. I hated the family resemblance.

“Mikey?” he said when I sat next to him. “Hey, brother.”

He held his hand out. I thanked God he didn’t try to hug me. His hand was rough. The kind of hand that smacked me and my mother around until I was seven, then left when we were used up. Sean squeezed hard. I squeezed harder.

“When’d you get out?”

“I was just telling her,” he said. “They tossed me out this morning. Hit up a barbeque joint and some bars the old man used to take me to. Didn’t realize how much this place has changed.”

“Gentrification’s a fucking bitch,” Colleen said.

A shirt clung on him too tight. I could see his muscles. Cheap prison tats covered his arms. I looked to see if he had any neo-Nazi shit, but all I saw were shamrocks, our family name wrapped around the trinity knot. Colleen offered him another beer, saying they were on the house. He wasn’t even done with his first drink. Colleen still charged me half-price.

“Domestics stocked up, Mike?”

I raised my Hamm’s towards her. My arms sagged. I stretched them. Sean tapped on the bar. He wore a grin on his face like he’d just won the lottery. He slapped me on the back and I flinched.

“Glad I’m finally meeting you, Mikey,” he said.

“Mike,” I said. I chugged half the beer. “We met when you were a baby. I’m sure the old man had so much to say about me.”

“He mentioned you a few times.”

I took another drink. Drips caught on my graying beard. Felt that Donnelly rage rise in my stomach. I swallowed it down and squeezed the can.

“He leave you all?”

“Nah,” Sean said. “We got into it a few times. Saw him throw a shuffleboard disc at some guy’s eye just because he thought he was cheating. Back when he would bring me around bars when I was kid, show me off to the other losers. Good thing I never inherited those mean drunk genes.”

He winked at me. I ignored it. He signaled Colleen for another round and two double shots of Jameson, threw a crisp twenty on the bar. Colleen waved it away. He pushed it towards her.

“Got a little going-away gift,” he said. “On me, hermano. Keep the change, Colleen.”

“Thanks,” I said. I drained the whiskey, felt the burn boil the rage.

“When’s this place close anyway?”

“One-thirty,” Colleen said. “You boys staying out late?”

“Depends on this guy,” Sean said, throwing a thumb in my face.

I shrugged. “Can’t tonight. Supposed to frost. Gotta cover my tomato plants.” It was the last batch before winter. I wanted to get them to Mary.

“Well, you’re always welcome here,” Colleen said. She poured us two more Jamesons, looked Sean right in the eyes. “This time it’s on the house.” She moved to the other end of the bar to assist in the slow suicides of the old regulars.

I looked outside. Fall turning into winter. I hated it. Nothing grew. I thought I’d go crazy until spring.

“I gotta ask a question, Mikey.”

“Mike,” I said. “What’s up.”

“I need a place to crash,” he said. “I know Jim asked if I could stay with you. Just wanted to ask you face-to-face. Until I get back on my feet.”

“My place is pretty cramped,” I said.

“Think I mind that?” He laughed at his own joke.

A whole song came and went. It was darker now, colder. I had to get home, cover my garden. I looked at Sean, turned away and closed my eyes, tried to push him away. Thought about what to plant next spring. Thought about Mary. When all that marriage counseling failed, she told me I never tried to change. That I was averse to growth. I never knew how to prove her wrong.

“Let’s saddle up,” I said.

“Giddy up.” Sean knocked back his Jameson.

Ethan, the night bartender, came in. I told him all the kegs were good, the beer cooler stocked and organized. He said thanks and went behind the bar. Sean strutted down to Colleen. I heard them laugh and watched him give her a little more green. I headed out.

I stood on the corner, shivered, and pulled out a pack of Marlboros. Watched the cars roll by Broadway Boulevard. Sean came out, winced at the Midwest cold. He fingered through a duffel bag and grabbed a jacket.

“Mind if I bum one of those?”

I tossed the pack to him. I watched the last few minutes of sunlight disappear and we stood in the softness of the corner streetlight. We didn’t talk while we walked to my old Ford. He whistled “Danny Boy.” When we got to the truck, he tossed his bag in the bed like a hitchhiker. I hoped he kept his mouth shut the whole ride.

Traffic was light. Sean messed with the radio. He flipped from the Beatles to Johnny Cash to the classical station. I reached over to play a CD. He tapped along with Springsteen’s The River and bummed another cigarette. I threw him the whole pack.

I lived in Sugar Creek so I took Truman Road. Kansas City gave way to empty trailer parks and dilapidated factories. Looked like someone had blasted the street with mortars. Sean had me stop at a Shell on the corner. The dash-clock said it was seven-thirty. I just wanted to check on my garden.

“I’m gonna grab some whiskey. Want anything?”

I shook my head. When he opened the door, cold air burst in like a canon blast. I watched him go in. I saw the clerk through the gaps of booze ads. Sean walked up to him. I half-expected and half-hoped that he’d pull out a gun, rob the place fresh out of the joint. I kept the truck running, ready to leave him there until the cops showed up or the clerk blew his brains all over the floor. He came back with a brown bag.

He slid into the seat, pulled out a bottle, unscrewed it. The sticky warm smell of Jameson filled the air. He took a long pull, cleared his throat.

“Cheers, hermano.”

He handed me the bottle. In the neon glow of beer signs, I thought about the dead bastard, and Mary, and family, and the ties that bind. I wanted to cut them. But I closed my eyes and thought about the tomatoes. All the strawberries, herbs, and zucchini I grew the last two years. My hands deep down in the dirt. I eased the truck back on the road. Sean kept talking but all I kept thinking about was trying to beat the frost.

“Nice place you got here.”

The TV sat on a table of plywood and cinderblocks. Empty Hamm’s cans crowded the coffee table like modern art. A shelf of Civil War and gardening books filled a bookcase. The bedroom had an unmade bed. Most nights I just slept on the couch.

I pushed past Sean and grabbed some sheets from my dresser, clothespins from the kitchen, threw the backyard lights on and went out to my garden. He followed me out. I’d moved in this little shack when Mary divorced me. Whoever was here before had this old garden patch that was desolate. I let it set for months before I bought some seeds. Now it took up half the yard.

I felt a few tomatoes that were cold to the touch. I threw one sheet over a plant and wrapped it, careful not to break it. Stuck clothespins on the stem so the sheet wouldn’t blow off. Felt my fingers starting to numb.

“Need a hand?”

Wind started to blow. I had four more tomato plants to cover. “Grab a sheet there,” I said. “Cover one of those plants.” I handed him some clothespins.

Sean tripped and almost fell on two of the tomato bushes.

“Careful,” I said. “Don’t snap the stem.”

We got them covered; our hands red from the cold. Back inside, Sean grabbed the bottle of Jameson. He nursed the whiskey. I sat down and flipped on the TV.

He nudged the bottle my way.

I took it and sipped. Found a Schwarzenegger flick.

“Sorry I couldn’t make it to the funeral,” he said.

“It rained for most of it.”

“Where’s he buried?”

“Independence. Same place where they buried Frank James.”

“I’d like to see him.”

I took a longer pull off the Jameson. “He isn’t going anywhere.”

“How long you been gardening? You don’t strike me as the type.”

“Since Mary left. Figured I might as well turn into an old woman for the hell of it.”

Sean chuckled at that. I cracked a smile, too.

“You miss him, Mikey?”

“You knew him more than me.”

“He visited me a few times,” Sean said. “Before he went.”

“You look just like him,” I said.

“So do you.”

“Nah,” I said. “I got the looks from Beverly.”

He laughed. I handed him the whiskey. He toasted me and my tomatoes, took a swig.

“He wasn’t perfect, Mikey,” he said. “But he loved us.”

“I fucking hate him,” I said.

“That’s your problem,” Sean said. “We had counseling in the joint, guy told us that we ended up here because of our own shit. Blaming someone else? Gotta take responsibility and live with it.”

“That bastard never did.”

“I loved him, Mikey. I bet you loved him, too.”

I grabbed the bottle from him and swallowed two gulps in one. “I don’t think I ever loved him. He never loved me.”

Sean shook his head, lit a cigarette. Blew the smoke towards the ceiling. “He talked a lot about you, Mikey. And Mary, too.”

My jaw clenched hard that I felt my teeth shift like tectonic plates. “The hell you know about it?”

Sean looked at me like I’d just taken his favorite toy from him. That made something inside me stir.

“I didn’t mean anything by it, Mikey.”

“Mike,” I said. “You don’t know Mary. Don’t talk about her like you know fuck-all about it.”

I was ready to take the bottle and smash it on Sean’s head, throw a match on the whiskey and watch the last remnant of the old bastard burn. The fact that he had talked about me and Mary to Sean behind my back, that made me want to pull a full-on Mount Vesuvius. I brought the bottle back to my lips and swallowed until my esophagus was lit by napalm and my head got stuck in a whirlpool. The old bastard had tried to call me when Mary left me, and before he’d died. I’d ignored him both times.

My phone vibrated. I prayed it was Mary. I flipped it open to see a message from Colleen:

come in Saturday night to close – bring Sean, got some work for him

“Good news,” I said, clenching my jaw again. “Colleen’s got a job for you.”

Sean lifted the Jameson and made another toast. I was done with toasts. I was done with family, the ties that bind, and brothers. His rehabilitated convict act pissed me off.

I leaned back in the chair and closed my eyes. Took my mind off Sean and the bastard and Mary. Pictured my tomatoes instead. Told myself I’d give them another day before I picked them. They were ready.

I tried to avoid Sean on Friday, but he followed me around like a beaten puppy. He ate my leftovers, used my shampoo, drank my beer, smoked my cigarettes, changed my presets when we drove to the Price Chopper for groceries. I uncovered my tomato plants and gave each one a little squeeze. Sean passed out on the couch, I took the room and kept the door shut and locked.

I was up before him Saturday morning. Grabbed a basket and went out to the garden. The air crisp with that first bite of winter. The tomatoes looked like ornaments in the sun. I had to toss a couple out into the yard for the critters, but I saved the seven best tomatoes for Mary. Thought about writing her a note that they’d be good for soup or sauce. Thought better about it.

I sat back on the ground, dug my hands in the soil. Closed my eyes and tried to imagine the roots. I read somewhere that maybe roots talked to each other. I dug my hands deeper and tried to feel something.

Sean came out with two cups of coffee. I stood up with the basket, looked at the picked plants. Nothing to grow until spring, no reason to come out here. In the winter it would be barren. I’d have to see it every day. Thinking about it made me angry.

I walked inside, sat the tomatoes on the kitchen counter. Went back into the living room and sipped the coffee. Sean sat on the couch next to me.

“Hey Mikey,” he said. “Can you take me to the old man’s grave?”

Soil was still under my fingernails. I drank half the coffee before I answered him.

“Told you it’s nothing special.”

“Like I give a shit,” he said. “Just wanna pay my respects.”

I left it at that. He wanted to see the old bastard? He wanted to talk to a dead man? He could take a cab and do it himself.

On the way to Murphy’s, I told Sean I had to run an errand. I’d bagged the tomatoes and put them in the back of the truck. Mary lived on the edge of town. I pulled up in her neighborhood and parked a few houses down. Reached in the back and got the bag of tomatoes.

“Who are those for?” Sean said.

“Mary,” I said, getting out.

I heard Sean open his door and step out. I walked over to the other side and stopped him.

“Stay here,” I said. “I just leave them on the door. Don’t even talk to her.”

That made him laugh. Like it was the funniest shit he’d heard. “Why not? She know it’s you?”

I looked down at the tomatoes in my hand, shrugged. “I guess.”

I turned towards her house and walked up the sidewalk. I usually kept my head down when I did it, in case she was by the window. When I got to her driveway, I saw a car parked behind hers. Nothing I’d seen before. I dropped the bag, cursing myself when I picked them up, felt the bottom of the bag soggy. Everything ran through my mind then. I went to her porch and placed the bag next to the door. The lights were on. I stepped closer. Thought about knocking. Ask her how she liked the vegetables over the summer. Did she grill or fry the zucchini. Apologize for fucking up the tomatoes like I fucked up so many other things. Felt something trying to crawl its way up my throat that wanted me to crush every tomato in the bag and throw them at the car parked behind hers. I swallowed it down and headed back to the truck.

“You talk to her this time?”

I cranked the engine and let it set there for a moment.

“Shut up,” I said. “Just shut the fuck up.”

“Jesus, Mikey, what’s gotten into you?”

“Shut the fuck up, Sean,” I said.

My stomach felt better. Like I’d released something that wanted to get out for years.

We got to Murphy’s, not talking the rest of the way. Colleen told me to work the back door. She took pity on Sean’s ass and put him behind the bar with Ethan. I watched him flirt with women who thought he was dangerous. His pockets stuffed with tips. I cleared his keg lines. The fucker asked me to get him a case of High Life, like he was Colleen or something. Like he wasn’t my younger half-brother. I bit my tongue and snuck whiskey. The flask in my pocket kept getting empty and I kept filling it back up. Thought about the car at Mary’s house. Thought about taking a smoke break and calling her. Afraid of what I’d say. I grabbed more whiskey bottles, brought more plastic cups from the back, cut limes for him. He and Colleen laughed together. He moved behind the bar like a dancer. Made a big show out of everything.

Closing time came and Colleen gave us our shift beers. I sulked over mine. Didn’t even taste it. Colleen counted the night’s cash and gave Sean a fat wad of tip shares. Ethan and Chuck said he was a natural. He smiled a toothy half-grin that I just knew belonged to the old man and shoved the money in his pocket. I rolled my eyes. He made me sick. Looking at him made me want to dig up the old man and yell at him one last time.

“Watch yourself, Colleen,” I said. “That one’s a killer.”

Everyone turned my way. Sean didn’t seem at all fazed. Colleen gave me a look like a mother gives her idiot son who just broke the neighbor’s window.

She reached over and took my beer away. “That’s it for you, Mikey.”

“That isn’t fair,” I said. “I was here first.”

“Why don’t we go home, buddy,” Sean said.

“No ‘we’ about it,” I said. “Time to pack up your shit and move on, bro.”

He went over to help me walk out but I pushed him away. “Don’t fucking touch me.”

“C’mon, Mikey. Let’s get out of here.”

“It’s Mike to you.”

I stood up but tripped. Sean caught me. He took my night’s pay from Colleen, stuffed it in my pocket. He carried me out of the bar. I tried to fight him all the way to the parking garage with sad, drunken effort. Not even the cold sobered me up. There’d be a frost coming, and I didn’t have anything to cover. I smelled Marlboros on his breath.

“You owe me about fifty cigarettes.”

“Whatever you say.”

“You wanna see the old man so bad? That gonna give you some peace? Let’s go.”

Even through the booze I could tell he wasn’t impressed. I just wanted to hurt him like our old man hurt me, wanted him to feel what I had for years. What I felt whenever I wasn’t digging in the dirt, planting. Sean never budged. I tossed him the keys when we got to the truck, slid in the passenger seat. My brain felt like a fifty-pound weight.

Sean got in and didn’t say anything. The truck’s engine choked and coughed until it finally caught. He pulled onto the street and I told him to take the Broadway exit onto I-70. The streets were empty. It wasn’t until we were halfway to Independence when he cleared his throat.

“I just wanted a brother,” he said.

“Philadelphia is the city of brotherly love, so if that’s what you want you should get out of here.”

“You think he was a bastard, but really it’s you.”

“I’m nothing like him.”

“Think Mary would agree?”

“Fuck you,” I said. “You’re one to talk.”

Sean gripped the wheel and put weight on the accelerator. His knuckles looked ready to burst through the skin, like the Donnelly rage was buried deep inside him.

“I paid my dues, Mike. You got no idea what it’s like. You didn’t know what he was like with us. You wanna put that shit on me?”

“You wanna take the Sterling exit,” I said. “Cemetery’s just off that road.”

I messed around with the radio, tried to change my presets back. Skipped the sad graveyard shift DJs playing the same three songs. It wasn’t worth trying to drown him out. I turned it off and grabbed a cigarette. I sucked it down like it was the last tank of oxygen in the world. I threw the pack on Sean’s lap. He lit one. Smoke filled the cab with the silence.

I led him to the cemetery, telling him where to turn. When we finally there he drove slow over the rough and narrow path. We got to where the old man was buried. He parked the truck and killed the engine. I dug out a flashlight from the glovebox and walked through the rows of headstones, stumbling over the smaller ones that I couldn’t see. I wondered how many men like the old bastard were rotting here. The world was full of them.

“There it is,” I said. I put the light on the headstone. I hadn’t been there for three years, not since they threw the dirt on him. COLM KIERAN DONNELLY BELOVED FATHER 1958-2013. I spat on the ground. Sean stood in front of the stone. Even got down on his knees like he was going to pray.

“I wish we had some whiskey,” he said. He reached out and touched the headstone. I heard him mumbling, as if the old man could hear.

I watched Sean. His head was bowed down and I thought I heard him crying.

“Let’s go,” I said. “I’m done with this.” I headed toward the truck.

Sean stayed where he was, ran his hand over the old man’s name. He tore at the long grass and tidied up the ground. I stopped, walked over to him. When I got close enough, I pushed him. He fell into the headstone, turned around to look at me. He wiped his eyes and stared at me. I felt the Donnelly rage spill out of me.

“Come on,” I said. “You said you’re all better? That he was a good father? Show me. I know it’s down there.”

I took a step back and held my fists up. Sean stood up and looked at me like I was the saddest sight that he had ever seen. I probably was. I took another step toward him and pushed again. He hardly moved. He didn’t push me back, didn’t raise his fists. I wanted him to.

“I’m not doing this, Mike.”

“Come on,” I said. My fists were clenched hard and felt my nails digging into my skin. The soil was still there.

He started to move towards the truck; I took a step and swung my fist. He dodged it and I lost my balance. I tripped and fell on the old man’s headstone. The side of my head hit the top and even through the booze I felt the shock and tasted blood. I fell back onto the cold hard dead ground.

Sean stood over me. My eyes were half closed but I could make him out. He didn’t look disappointed or angry or sad. He just looked at me, calm as a spring breeze. I looked up at Sean and laughed. Didn’t even think about the throbbing in my head.

He pulled me up and I thought he’d hug me. He didn’t, and I didn’t. I just kept laughing. He scoffed and shook his head. Then a smile crept at the corner of his mouth before he joined in. We sat back down against the old man’s headstone, laughing among the dead bastards. We let the cold air wash over us. He told me that everything was going to be fine. I closed my eyes and took a breath. My hands clawed at the ground, felt the hard soil give. Something could have grown there. Something could have, when it was warmer.  

author Colin Brightwell

Colin Brightwell

Colin Brightwell is a Kansas City native. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Reckon Review, Flyover Country Literary Review, BULL, Cowboy Jamboree, and PastTen Years. He is a graduate of the University of Mississippi MFA program in fiction. He currently resides in Oxford, MS.