Dan hated the Christmas season, it reminded him of everything that sucked about his life, like salt in a bad wound. He wished he could stay home for a good week previous and after, but he hadn’t had a lot of work over the last two months and had to keep hustling. Sometimes people up and decided to re-do their kitchen or bathroom before the holidays, fix up the house before the in-laws showed up. He needed the money.
He needed groceries too, but wished he had time and gas to drive to Yuba City or Redding. He didn’t feel like running into people, which was inevitable at this time of year. People who would ask about Rachel and the kids, no doubt. Hadn’t everybody heard what an asshole he was? Didn’t everybody know Rachel had dumped him almost five years back and taken the kids to live with her new old man?
And as he drove into the post office parking lot, there were Brent and Jane. His heart sank – he hadn’t seen them or contacted them since they’d taken him in and let him stay in one of their empty rentals when Rachel had kicked him out. Five years. He’d been on a pretty bad drunk, and needed to dry out and set up some kind of household to get her to let the kids stay with him. Six and ten years old, the kids would also need some convincing. The lion’s share of their lives, their dad had been a raging, mean, loud drunk.
Brent and Jane had let Dan and the kids use their empty house, loaned him furniture and bedding, and worst of all – they’d been completely understanding, never questioning, always confident that Dan would pull his head out of his ass. And he had used their house and left it in a mess with the key under the front door mat and never even called them to say thanks. He wondered if they understood how he’d felt, how humiliating it was to go to them for help.
And now here they were, in a newish SUV, looking fit and happy – STILL MARRIED! Staring straight at him, and yeah, Brent raised his hand in greeting – Dan had been spotted.
Brent and Jane had seen Dan around here and there over the past years. They knew his marriage was kaput, they knew his wife had a new man, they knew his daughter had made a splash on the high school track team and that his son was in an accelerated “college bound” school program, but this they had heard through the grapevine. They had no use for Rachel, she was a bitch, had driven Dan into the bottle with her incessant impractical demands. Dan had been nothing more than a meal ticket to Rachel, as far as they could see. She’d taken advantage of his good nature and lack of education, and ignored his health and his worsening deafness. After she left, she took him to court – she wasn’t happy with child support and shared custody, she tried to screw him out of the property he’d bought before he’d met her. Brent and Jane had stuck through the divorce with Dan, they knew every miserable embarrassing detail.
Jane immediately realized that Dan didn’t want to see them. But at this time of year, her husband gave over to sentiment and went out of his way to see old friends. He knew Dan was not “in a good way” but was stubborn about saying Hello, yakking a little with his longtime friend. They had worked together in the flooring business for years, Brent had taught Dan the business when Rachel was pregnant with Ali and Dan needed to get a serious paycheck.
Flooring was hard work – just carrying “the goods” in from the truck was tough, a roll of carpet was heavy enough to snap a guy’s ankle if he made a mis-step. Nothing about the job wasn’t bad for a person’s body – toting heavy weight, using a “kicker” to move the carpet into place on the floor, toxic smoking glue to seam it up. One mistake, and the installer paid for “the goods” – maybe a thousand bucks for a big living room.
Flooring installers get blown knees, ankles and backs, like a lot of other workers, but Brent had found out what the job does to a man’s gut – he had got a hernia from crawling around on all fours, using a device known as a “knee kicker” to move the carpet on the floor all those years. The hernia had led to a blockage, and the blockage had almost blown his appendix. If Jane hadn’t got him to the hospital when she did, he might have died. At the very least, he would have had a complete colectomy and a little plastic bag to collect his shit for life.
He knew if what had happened to him had happened to Dan, Dan would be dead. He knew Rachel had been a mistake, but how do you tell a guy? He’d watched plenty of his friends go down that way – thinking they were lucky to get any woman to have them, they’d taken women that didn’t really care about them, just wanted a baby and a man to pay for it. He would run into two more such friends by the end of the day.
He greeted Dan at the post office door, refusing to allow him off with a quick wave and hello, instead opening the conversation, “I saw your brother the other day, he says he still hates you.” Brent had a big grin on his face.
Dan’s face clouded up. This was something he wasn’t ready for – a question about Dave. Two boys from a New Jersey family of eight, grown up fighting over everything from room space to toys to their parents’ attention, they’d followed the Grateful Dead out to the west coast to get out from under their sprawling loud family. They became Jerry’s Kids, enjoying this new freedom with people who didn’t yell at them all the time. They’d fallen into a crowd of Jersey and Connecticut Deadheads that had made their way to Chico, a funny little college town in Northern California. Brothers who had never exactly got along but couldn’t seem to separate. Now he hadn’t spoken to Dave for over a year, and that was probably a rude gesture or a curse word, he couldn’t remember.
Dave was different. He was loud and flamboyant, very Jersey. He had an ease with people, and they liked him. He loved women, and loved to flirt, but had somehow remained a bachelor all these years. He loved kids, even though he was very child inappropriate, using the coarsest possible language, telling the most inappropriate stories – he was everybody’s favorite babysitter. He had loved watching the kids for Dan and Rachel. But he liked to say rude things and make trouble – this was his entertainment, trying to bait Rachel and Dan into a fight. He had not liked Rachel from the get-go, and frankly didn’t care what happened to their marriage. He could be very self-centered at times.
Unless drunk and fighting with his wife, Dan had always been the complete opposite of his brother – the quiet, shy type, the guy who reddened up and started to stutter whenever a woman looked at him. He couldn’t hold a conversation in a bucket. Women were attracted to his good looks and sweet demeanor, but after a quick chat, they’d find somewhere else to go. Dan had nothing to say, he couldn’t hear very well, and within minutes he would become frustrated with himself and take it out on the woman, saying something gruff and stupid. He came off as a guy who hated women, and eventually, people in general.
Rachel was also from New Jersey, a lot more aggressive than California girls. She got right to the point, and within a week she and Dan were living together. She wasn’t horrible looking, almost cute – but as soon as Dan’s friends started to get to know her, they started disappearing. She came off as a demanding fishwife, always running Dan down in front of his friends, complaining he wasn’t a good provider. Very forward and free-spirited when they met, she suddenly became very old-fashioned about their relationship – she was to stay home stuffing her face and yakking on the phone, and he was supposed to go out and bring home the bacon. And she wanted alot of bacon – she saw what Brent had after working for almost 20 years – a home in a nice part of town and a new car for his wife – and she wanted Dan to get it overnight. Dan’s friends could see he was in an impossible position, but they didn’t know what to do about it.
And now Brent was asking about his brother. Everybody knew he’d had a big blow-out with Dave. All those years they’d irritated each other at times, but somehow, they’d remained “together,” calling each other for favors or help, or just companionship. They’d supported each other through hard times, even as tiny children when Dad was screaming at them from the top of his lungs. They’d come out together, on a bus full of strangers, and somehow stayed within five miles of each other all these years. Then one day Dave made the mistake of trying to talk to Dan about his marriage and kids, telling him what to do. Ka-POW! A huge fight, a fight that ran over weeks, around town, ugly exchanges in the checkout line at the grocery store, fingers thrown out car windows in passing, and even a “FUCK YOU!” phone call when Mom had died.
And now here they were. He thought about the rest of his family – Dad still hanging on somehow, the family had moved with him and Mom to Florida after they’d sold their house in Jersey. Now Mom had died. Their much-older brother, the only one of the kids to really do anything with his life, had died about a year previous, and the rest of the kids were living within a few miles of the retirement village where Dad was hooked up to his oxygen tank and going to physical therapy classes every morning. He and Rachel and the kids, along with Dave, had actually traveled out, at their beloved older brother’s expense, to spend a last Christmas with the family. They loved their parents, despite the yelling and screaming, but they especially loved their older brother Ben, he was the one who had kept their big ugly family together despite his father’s dysfunction.
Dan wondered sometimes what he and Dave were doing out here. Now he suddenly felt alone, naked. It was as if he’d been in some kind of stupor lately, and now Brent was shaking him out of it with those words, “your brother…”
He suddenly realized, it was Rachel who had driven the stake in, years before, when she had systematically tried to cut Dave out of their lives. Suddenly a matron of propriety, she had decided that Dave “wasn’t okay with the kids”, acted as though he’d been dragging their kids away all these years instead of her dumping the kids on him to go out for Chai Tea with her snotty hip friends. She said she didn’t even want him in the house, convincing Dan that Dave was a cancer in their family.
As soon as Dan had spoken to Dave about it, the fuse was lit, and the dislike between Dave and Rachel became too big for the house. He stopped coming over, but continued to phone Dan to ask when he was going to “slap some sense into your wife”. Then Dan and Rachel broke up, Dave seemed to be squeezing him – almost moving into Rachel’s position as Head Nag. He blew up and unloaded on Dave, every irritating little habit Dave had was put to the light. Dave was overwhelmed – all the sudden, his life-long companion was giving him The Boot, his own brother. Over a woman!
This all came to light in Dan’s head suddenly as he stood in front of the post office watching Brent and Jane drive away. He hadn’t even asked them where they were living, hadn’t exchanged phone numbers. He felt like an unwanted puppy left in a cardboard box with a “Free” sign. Suddenly his face melted into a river of tears.
He became frantic. Where is Dave these days? This used to seem like too small of a town, but now he felt awash in a desert of strangers. He felt disoriented leaving the parking lot in his junked out van, almost got in an accident. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard where Dave was living – Dave had got in a fight with their old landlord and moved out of the house they’d shared, that was about two years ago.
And then he remembered where he and Dave had always spent their Christmas Eve in the years they’d lived together – they’d gone to the community dinner at the homeless shelter. Socialite Dave had immediately become a server, relishing his important position in town. He’d even got his picture in the paper – a picture that had been sent home and put in a frame by Mom and still sat on Dad’s bedside table in Florida.
Dan looked at his cell phone. Still time to make it. He calmed himself and turned the van down Park Avenue toward the shelter. He felt frantic, but tried to pull himself together, not wanted Dave to sense anything weird, just, you know, wanted to see how you were doing…
He pulled up behind the shelter building, an old warehouse converted to a few beds and a shower facility and a kitchen and dining hall. He sat in the car a moment in kind of a trance. He could have sat there for hours, but he pulled himself out of the van and vaulted toward the building. Wandering in the side entrance, he noticed the dinner was starting to break up. Some people sat at tables quietly eating their turkey and mashed potatoes with a side of peas and pumpkin pie dessert, others sat over empty plates contemplating their next move. Others walked along chatting and picking up empty plates and leftovers. There was a festive mood among the volunteers – he realized, how good it feels to help people, how it puts your own problems into perspective. The depression he’d carried like mantel fell off his shoulders, and he thought, “I have a home, I have some money in the bank, it’s not so bad.”
And then he noticed a shuffling character, wearing a towel for an apron and an old stocking cap on his head – Dave. Of course he had a cigarette in his mouth as he walked along the tables gathering empty dishes. But his mouth rattled non-stop, he was such a chatterbox, making off-color jokes and chiding people for their weaknesses – no matter how irritating this guy could be, he was always the life of the party. His co-workers chattered back at him, happily sharing his mood, and Dan realized what he’d been missing these past few years.
He sat down at the corner of a table and a woman appeared at his shoulder with a full plate – would he like some food? There was plenty left, she said, local businesses had been unusually generous this year. He smiled at her, and realized, his face felt good, he had not smiled like that, or laughed at all, since he could remember.
He sat stuffing down the mashed potatoes and gravy – real mashed potatoes and gravy – and the food washed over him, and it was good.
And suddenly his brother stood before him. The long-time volunteers knew who Dan was, they knew they hadn’t seem him for many years, and they knew Dave hurt in his heart missing his brother, but was too proud to seek him out. Two stubborn human beings, torturing themselves out of pride. A classic biblical story, appropriate for Christmas – the other volunteers and some of the guests watched as though they were witnessing The Miracle.
“Hey Asshole, what’s up?” Dave grinned from ear to ear, hand on one hip, elbow on the other, cigarette poised in the air. Tears ran down his face, but he blinked them away and stood with those ugly teeth shining across his face.
Dan sat swallowing his potatoes, feeling good, feeling like he belonged somewhere, he answered, “nothing new Asshole, what’s up with you?” And he calmly stuffed a fork load of turkey into his mouth. He looked at his brother, and started to laugh, having to cover his mouth to keep the food from spraying across the table. His whole body was feeling good now, he had felt like an old tire, and now he felt pumped full of fresh air again. The misery of the past few years rolled off like water on a duck’s back.
Sometimes people think they can’t go back, and that’s really the only thing that’s holding them.