The Personal Failures of an English Major by Aidan Ziliak

Jalen had always found the dichotomy of the Louisville bus system fascinating. Tight, dirty seats and cheap fare were the Great Equalizers.  Dickensian drunkards and white-collar stiffs shared bus seats, neither happy with the arrangement, but content in the discomfort they brought one another.  Technical-school phlebotomists and salaried graphic artists almost joined hands and sang Kumbaya in unison when the bus would crest a curb.

While the walls of the bus brought those in its belly closer together, it enveloped and quarantined them from the wider, outside city. The smudged windows blurred pedestrians into caricatures – no longer human, but vague emotion.  The sun, when it could be bothered to creep below the eaves of the skyscrapers above them, would highlight his face in the glass, a reverse mirror of the outside world looking in – but he hated seeing his reflection.

H e couldn’t shake the anger in the pit of his stomach when he saw it. There was a hole in his chest that gaped just a millimeter wider at the sight of himself, every time focusing on some other minute detail of his countenance – the slope of his cheekbones, the slight swirl in his hairline, or the fullness of his lips. As they passed beyond the late-afternoon skyscraper shadows, his visage faded from view in the window, replaced by the grassy lots and overgrown front stoops of his childhood.

There, on Jefferson County Communal Playground, on the monkey bars, he had broken his first bone; his left shin. The missing bar that had brought him to his knees that day was still missing.  They had painted over the flaking red of his childhood, though, in ‘earthy’ tones of green and brown.  His anger was forgotten, left to rot somewhere between his spleen and his appendix, as another sense took its place – this one of anticipation, and memory, and nostalgia, and a love so deep it can’t be called love any more, but incontrovertible truth.

His roommate senior year at UC Berkeley lived just across the state border, in Oregon, and went home every holiday. Over a 2 a.m. study break at the McDonald’s two blocks over from the townhouse they shared, his roommate confessed to nearly breaking down in tears every time he returned home, even though it was only a five hour drive there and back.  Jalen hadn’t known what to expect on his own return.  He wasn’t feeling particularly weepy at the moment, but six years was a long time.

There, on that bench next to the bus stop with the upside-down sign, he would sit on the late summer days when the air was so thick fans would slow to a crawl and do his homework. The tips of his fingers rubbed together in the memory of the pencil stubs he would write with until only the metal tip remained.  The city had replaced the old, open concrete bench with a shiny, new metal one, covered with an overhang advertising for ‘Checks Ca$hed Now!’, however.

There, under that streetlamp, he had watched Elijah, fifteen to his own twelve, begin to abandon their family as he joined one of his own, with a self-aggrandizing oath and a cigarette burn. There, by that fire hydrant, he had watched from across the street, not daring to raise his reedy voice in protest as his brother was broken and carried off under hard and inscrutable blue eyes. There –

The bus driver hit the brakes too late; the bus slid a few feet past its stop, all squealing axels and burning rubber. Propelled by inertia, its passengers fell forward as one, once again bonded in camaraderie, this time a well-developed sense of loathing towards the bus driver and his ilk, to whom the usage of the brake pedal was only an occasional nuisance.  Jalen composed himself before grabbing his meagre luggage.

Jalen took a moment to draw back in the scenery. Each plot of land was wide, made wider by the small size of each house.  Lawns, some brown and dead, watered by beer and piss, decorated by leaden children’s toys; alternated with green like Crayola watercolors, under the heavy boughs of hundred-year trees.  The neighborhood was more proud than it was rich, and more poor than it was proud.  Old foundations rotted, the already-low houses sagging even closer to the dirt.  Muted colors shared space with bare, peeling wood.  Generations of Tom Sawyer summers had left many a fence languishing under an inch of whitewash.

Soon enough he came upon one facade, indistinct when selected from its neighbors and peers, front lawn green but not luxuriant, front porch mat welcoming but frayed, that nevertheless gave him pause. He turned, facing up the front walk, and stared – stared at the wonderfully familiar deck chairs, the peeling lawn gnome, the stained Virgin Mary on the front step, the cracks in the sidewalk that the neighborhood girls would draw over with chalk when they would play hopscotch, the dim warm glow from inefficient light bulbs that filled the front window.

“Jalen! Is that you?  Why you just standing there, come on in!”  The same dim warm glow now outlined the thick curls of Momma like a chocolate Mrs. Claus, smelling of Saturday supper and Sunday church, leaning out the window, calling him in like nothing had changed since the days in which she would call him in after a long day of play, smacking his knuckles when he’d reach for a little nibble of that night’s dinner.  

“Coming, Momma.” Jalen pushed open the screen door – noting where it peeled back, frayed and thin – and stepped into a memory of a dream.  The same pictures still sat on the small table under which they would keep their shoes.  The same throw rug filled their sitting room, from the same fat armchairs (now a little lower and a little wider) to the same boxy television.  She had changed the curtains – once a soft yellow, they were now a white, lacy and voluminous.  To his right, the hallway led to the same kitchen with the same off-white tiles, a little cleaner than remembered, but still familiar under his soles.

He heard a small sniffle from Momma, above the cast-iron pot that was once as tall as he was, as he stepped into the kitchen. She turned, still stirring, bright-eyed but grinning, her thick cheeks bunched in the corners.  Before she could speak a word, Jalen smothered her in as big an embrace as he could manage. “It’s good to see you, baby,” Momma said into his collarbone.

When he pulled away, her eyes were hard. “Six years.  That’s six straight Thanksgivings, Christmases, Easters, and summers.”

“Momma! I called you every day!”

“Still coulda been in jail.” She pursed her lips and took him all in, from the damp shoe leaking onto the floor to the short twists bobbing around his head. Then she grinned, and grabbed him in another hug.

 “Is there anything I can do, Momma?” Jalen said, his eye on the little nicks and scrapes and burns on her hands.

“Yeah, you can get those dirty shoes out my kitchen. Didn’t they teach you manners at university?”  She laughed at his frown.

While stowing his shoes underneath the picture-table, he noticed another pair alongside his own – a man’s, they were old and worn, but not old in the fashion of older men. Straightening up brought him eye-level, for a moment, with a single picture that had been pushed forward.  Jalen remembered this particular picture; forced into a constricting bow tie and claustrophobic shiny black shoes alongside his brother. Years later, there was anger in his fist as he smashed the glass; the small cuts he had left in the picture itself remained still.  There were tears in Momma’s – as well as his – eyes when she saw what he had done.  He remembered the hiding he’d taken, without a sound, afterwards.  She’d repaired the glass in the intervening time.

In the kitchen again, shoeless, he peered over Momma’s shoulder. “Burgoo?” he inquired, after a deep sniff.

“Of course! I knew they wouldn’t feed you right –“ she ran her hand along his face, pretending to look for a cheek to pinch but finding nothing but bare bones – “out West, so I made something that’ll weigh you down enough you can’t leave.  Maybe then I can keep you here a while!”  Momma laughed at her little joke, but underneath the mirth, Jalen could sense a hurt – not a personal hurt, but a hurt nonetheless – that, maybe, drew on six years’ worth of lonely holidays while Jalen was burying himself in a book in the always-balmy California air.

Jalen smiled. “Did you get mutton?  You won’t get me to leave if that there’s mutton.”  Jalen winced, internally – without warning, he could feel his speech beginning to relapse into the “hick talk” he’d worked so hard to shed while ‘out West’, as Momma called it.

“How’d you guess? You been spying on me, child?”  Momma looked sideways at him.

“No, I saw an eyeball bobbing around in there.” Jalen danced away from her playful slap – he’d once showed her an episode of Man vs. Wild and she’d never forgiven him.

“Go drop your stuff off, and maybe, if you stop annoying me, supper’ll be done before midnight.” When he continued to dawdle about the kitchen, she rolled up a towel and chased him out.  

His room was as he had left it. Two twin beds, thin sheets pulled tight across the mattresses every morning.  Jalen pulled his tiny suitcase inside, tossing it on his bed.  As he left, in the half-light from the hallway, he noticed that the covers on the other bed – which was once his brother’s, but had been vacant for almost a decade – were properly folded, creased neatly, even on all sides.  His mother had refused to touch that bed, as if by leaving it exactly as it had been when Elijah had left, it would somehow draw him back.  She must’ve decided that enough was enough and made it up.

Momma set two bowls at the dinner table, one across from the other. Her head was already bowed when Jalen entered, and he dropped into his chair, hands clasped, in one movement.  If there was one thing Momma wouldn’t tolerate, it was messing up supper prayer.

“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Hail Mary, full of grace –“ the front door slammed, and Jalen broke off.  Momma continued, louder now, her knuckles tightening their grip.

“Sorry I’m late, Momma, Shelly was late again to get Darnell. I know it’s not her job that’s keeping her, and it’s not my place to judge, but it’s getting to the point where I’m going to meet with her in person.  It’s not fair to Darnell, being the last kid there.  Are you eating already?”  Jalen heard, with ears disbelieving and angry, the thump of shoes being thrown off, the soft padding of thick socks, the voice – deeper, kinder, with better grammar and elocution – of a man that hadn’t been heard since Jalen was a teenager.

The man entered from Jalen’s left side. He was grinning.  Momma’s eyes were squeezed shut.  Jalen was frozen between his chair and outward explosion.  The grin faltered, eyes focused on the face before it.  Jalen and his brother locked eyes.  Momma’s prayer, quick and low and hoarse, trailed off.

“Elijah.” Jalen mouthed the name, but a cancerous lump in his throat plugged all noise.  The hole in his chest was plugged by a roiling betrayal.

“Jalen.” Elijah’s cocoa face was solemn.  Its eyes were deep, dark wells.   His skin was old, older than his twenty-nine years.  Then the grin broke out again; was that a droplet in the corner of his eye?  “It’s good to see you again.  You look so much like Dad.”

The lump in his throat melted like fat on the grill as fire rose in his gut. Jalen turned to Momma, a vein in his jaw jumping.  “You didn’t tell me he was out,” he said, accusation forking his tongue.

Elijah, still grinning, turned to Momma as well. “You didn’t tell me Jalen was coming home today.”

“Shut up,” Jalen barked. “Why is this asshole not still in jail?”

“Hey, Jalen, language!” Elijah took a step closer.  Jalen exploded out of his chair, palm outstretched, pushing into his brother.  His open hand clenched around Elijah’s shirt, drawing the two close.

“Don’t talk to me,” Jalen spat. He pushed his brother to the side and hurtled out of the kitchen, stopping at the front door to slip on his shoes.  As he did so, turning to leave, he caught a glimpse of his reflection on one of the picture frames.  He ran, now faster, from the house.  The face in the mirror was the same face he was trying to escape, back in the kitchen with Momma.

When the stitch had filled his ribcage and breath came hoarse and ragged in his throat, he stumbled to a halt. A bus stop bench breached the concrete, a wave floating in the thick air.  Jalen laid out on it, his feet dangling off the end, heels scraping the pavement below.  Sweat slid from the center of his forehead, down in rivulets through the cavity of his eye, sweat stinging at the corners, mingling with a softer liquid as it fell from the tip of his earlobe.  No stars were visible to him; the night laid its humid hand over his face, obscuring his sight.

His sentence had been twelve years. It was now twelve years since Jalen had forced himself into the too-small suit Momma bought for him at the courthouse, pulled from its plastic smelling of starch, and sat with his hands knotted in his lap as Elijah abandoned them for the cold hug of an orange jumpsuit.

Footsteps could be heard now in the empty neighborhood. Jalen sat up halfway, clearing his nose, dragging his shirtsleeve across his face.  The grimy light was dim and slow.  A shadowy outline approached tentatively through it, sluggish in the syrupy air.

Jalen turned on the bench, his feet flat on the ground, hands clasped on knees, eyes gathering every crack in the pavement in obsessive detail. The shadow stopped, distinct arms now visible, tucked in its pockets.

“What do you want, Elijah?” The shadow didn’t move.  “There isn’t anything you can say to me.  Twelve years is too long for any words.”

The shadow sighed, stepping forward to the edge of the light, light pooling in the holes and dips and curves of Elijah’s face. “You shouldn’t make Momma cry like that.  Your beef is with me.  Don’t take it out on her.  She just wants to see her sons happy again.” The half-light made him look old; old and tired and beaten.

Jalen sucked his teeth; he knew his brother was right. Momma didn’t deserve his anger.  “When was the last time we were happy together, Elijah?”

Elijah stopped. “You had just finished eighth grade.  Momma made breakfast for dinner.  Chocolate chip pancakes, bacon, biscuits, sausage gravy.  I remember.”

“That was over a decade ago. If you remember it so well, you should remember whose fault that was.”

Elijah stared at the ground until after Jalen left.

Sleep came but late, slinking back on soft paws in the slow drip of time before dawn. Jalen took its head in his hands, its singular yellow eye a harvest moon in the darkness.  He let it jump to his chest; pawing at the sheets, it drew a nest about itself, smothering.

Jalen was awoken by a barking dog and a slamming door. One was faint, beyond the peeling fence outside his window, ecstatic in its bouncing.  One was close, hurried like a missed deadline.

The musk of sleep took its time lifting; by the time he could force his head above his shoulders, the weight from his chest had lifted, disappearing until another night. His sheets, dense like rope around his ankles, came undone with reluctance.

He flexed and stretched, rolling his shoulders, feeling the cold of night sweat slide off his back. Momma was cooking bacon, the fatty smell mingling with the harsh milieu of cigarette smoke from the neighbors.  The smell of home.

Jalen grasped Momma’s arm as she set a plate before him. “Thank you,” he said, smiling wider than normal.

“You’re welcome, baby,” she said, grabbing his shoulder and shaking it gently. She sat down next to him, a grapefruit half and a cup of coffee for her.

“What’s that for, Momma? Eating healthy?”  Jalen looked sideways at the minimalist breakfast before her; this commitment to heart health was certainly not remembered.

“Elijah’s telling me about all the horrible diseases you can get at my age from all the bad stuff we eat. So, I decided, I’m a woman of a certain age, and I want to outlive Mrs. Lundorph – you remember that dog she got, the year before you graduated, how she would let it do its business in our yard?  Still!  It’s been six years and it’s still relieving itself in my yard.  When she goes, I want to get myself a dog and take it on a walk past her grave every day.  Show her how it feels.  So started eating with, what’s the word he used, ‘longevity’ in mind.  So – “ she tipped the grapefruit bowl – “ grapefruit and coffee for breakfast.”

Elijah’s dietary expertise was also something lacking in the memory bank. As far as Jalen could recollect, Elijah had always been partial to the junkier of the junk foods – Taco Bell, KFC, instant ramen and Twinkies all came to mind.

Jalen forced himself to smile in spite of the hollow pang he felt at the mention of his brother. “That’s great, Momma.  I see you still made me cheese eggs, though.  Don’t care about my longevity, huh?”

“You’ve got time to ruin your arteries.” She tilted her head in his direction, a grin dancing about her wide lips.  “Get on it, boy!”

“I won’t let you down, Momma.”

Momma happily sawed away at her grapefruit. “What’re you thinking ‘bout doing today?”

“I don’t know. I’d like to see the neighborhood again, during the day.   Unfortunately, the most important thing for me right now is findin’ a job.  The market just stinks, though.”

Momma grimaced at the grapefruit and reached for the jar of sugar. She stopped herself from heaping it on, instead staring wistfully at the jar.  “There’s too many people out in California.  Jesus knows, you’ll have more luck here.”

When he was finished, he took his plate to the sink, reaching for the soap and sponge. “Don’t worry yourself, baby.  I’ll get it,” Momma called from the table.  “You concentrate on finding yourself a job.”

Jalen sat back down. Momma took his hands in hers, looking him in the eye.  “Ain’t nobody for miles with a college degree, much less a Masters.  They’ll love you.”  He gave her a small smile, so she knew her words meant something, although he knew different.  “And, Jalen, Elijah wants you to know that there’s always an opening at his daycare.  He’ll pay you a full salary, hourly.  It’s very nice.”

Jalen was stunned into silence for a full moment. “A daycare?  Parents let him near their children?  Do they know who he – what he’s done?”

“Jalen! Your brother never did anything to children!”

“I was a child, Momma.”

“That’s not fair. Who Elijah was and who he is now are different people.”

“It’s hard to turn a new leaf when the old one is so heavy, Momma.”

Momma took her hands from his, frowning at him. “Go.  Forget I said anything.  But you need to recognize that twelve years is a long time.”

Jalen stood, pushing his chair back. “Not long enough for me.”

‘Elevate K12 is a leading provider of online instruction to schools and districts across US. We work with the largest school districts and cater to the needs of over 30,000 students nationally.  We are the #1 choice of school administrators for during and after-school online instruction and intervention for K12 students.

Hiring For: We are currently recruiting for the position of ‘Online Reading Tutor/Teachers’’.

There was a burning behind Jalen’s eyes that may have been from too many hours staring at his laptop’s pale glow, but then again, it may have had nothing to do with that.

‘Hourly rate of $12/hour with high number of confirmed hours of instruction.’ Twelve an hour wasn’t too bad, he told himself, as he checked the yellow star in his browser bar.

Three hours of scrolling, clicking, reading, scrolling, reading, and then clicking, had resulted in a hundred-odd bookmarked applications and a cookie trail of wasted time.

‘Faculty Level II (A), General Education/Composition; Brown Mackie College’ – that sounded like something more up his alley. ‘The instructor facilitates meaningful learning of the course competencies in the curriculum and proactively supports all facets of the learning environment.’  Well, teaching wasn’t so horrible.  His tenure as a TA had been decent.

                But he’d be damned if he’d end up working for his brother.  ‘Bachelor’s degree in a field related to the classes to be taught with a Master’s degree preferred.’  Not an issue there – 20th century Southern literature.  A Master’s degree at a daycare could be funny or pitiful, depending on how you looked at it. ‘Outstanding conflict resolution skills’ – maybe he could gloss over the ten-year-running feud with his brother on that account.

He sighed and bookmarked the page. College had been fun, but he hadn’t pursued a Master’s for the same reason he wouldn’t end up pursuing the Brown Mackie offer – the classroom just wasn’t his favorite place to be.  The monochrome linoleum and oppressive fluorescent lighting killed all joy in him.  Not to say that he didn’t enjoy learning, far from it; but he hadn’t spent these last ten years accruing knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

 He’d done it to be purposefully unlike his brother.  To be anything but a disappointment.  Yet Momma seemed to have welcomed Elijah back with open arms, unconditionally.  In spite of all he’d done.

  If sins could so easily be forgiven, then what was the point of trying so hard?

But maybe that was just mothers in general – no evil could be done to diminish their love. Even if Momma was blind to Elijah’s failure, he didn’t have to be.  Elijah couldn’t vote for the rest of his life, and yet she still sees him as a fundamentally good person?  But Jalen had attended college; not just attended, but graduated, full honors, and had written his Master’s thesis on Faulkner.  Elijah probably thought Requiem for a Nun was a Bluegrass song!

Jalen closed his laptop, maybe a little too hard. He checked the time on his clock; lunch came and went without a tummy rumble.   Maybe a walk was what he needed.  He’d check up on that online tutoring later; human contact wasn’t something he was too interested in at the moment.

That night, Jalen waited, prostrate on his bed, head buried in the banality of YouTube, until the sounds of Momma and Elijah at the dinner table had subsided. Eiderdown filled his skull. Thought was slow to come, and apathy held his legs in a half-hearted grip. Once the last dish had been scrubbed, he peered out his door.  Elijah was nowhere to be seen.  His stomach growled; Elijah had been late again and they took their time with dinner.

He inched out down the hallway, passing the living room as he did so, where Momma watched the television from her recliner.

The kitchen was empty. Fortunately, the fridge wasn’t.  He leaned against the counter as his bowl spun in the microwave.

“Why didn’t you eat with us?” He turned, startled.  Momma had snuck up on him under the hum of the nuke.

“I wasn’t hungry,” he said, exaggerating his shrug.

She was leaning against the partition separating the kitchen from the dining room, just out of sight.   “It’s rude to your brother, ignoring him like this.”

They waited in silence for a moment. Jalen popped the microwave open. He began to eat.

“I’m sorry I brought it up,” Momma said, not sounding sorry at all. “Elijah said you could have to bedroom all to yourself.  He’s sleeping on the couch.”

When they were kids, it was never ‘their’ bedroom. It was Elijah’s room, where he permitted Jalen to sleep – most nights.  He still recalled one night, the day after Elijah’s sixteenth birthday, he pounded at the door for over an hour for Elijah to let him in.  Elijah was entertaining his girlfriend at the time.  Jalen had to sleep on the couch.

 “Just thought you should know,” Momma said.  Jalen scraped his spoon along the bottom of his bowl.

So your telling me that he porked his mom and killed his dad?  I hate this class.

Jalen couldn’t decide whether to throw his laptop out his window or go down to Coin Laundry and let it bathe in a spin cycle or two. This kid – hell, she wasn’t even a kid, she was eighteen – had absolutely no grasp of literature.  And the typos!  How hard is it to remember the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’?  In theory, her inadequacy made sense; no wonder she was taking an online tutoring course, but this level of disinterest was something he couldn’t work with.

  1. The Oedipus complex draws from Oedipus’s experience.

What??? You mean thats a real thing??

Freud certainly thought so, but more recent psychoanalysis tends to discredit his theories.

Whos freud.  Sounds like a sick guy to me.

He grabbed both sides of his computer and almost smashed it across his knee before brain function caught up. He quit.  There was no way he was going to tutor someone so ignorant, so obviously uninterested in the world.  Maybe Brown Mackie was still hiring.

Jalen rubbed his belly while he yawned, dark hands feeling the once-taut skin turned soft under the iron shadow of Momma’s skillet. He was shirtless, letting the humidity of oppressive sleep soak out of his skin like a wrung shirt on a clothesline.   Late-morning sun, motes gently bobbing like a spawning summer in the Sargasso Sea, turned his skin to amber when the two touched.

Momma was sitting at the table, eyes unseeing in concentration as she divided her grapefruit. The warm light filtered through thin curtains, loose strands of her thick hair highlighted with an internal glow; a faint halo about her chocolate face.

He stopped by the door, grabbing the small pile of mail Momma had brought in during her morning constitutional. He thumbed through it as if the object of his inspection could be found with only a bit more work – who knows, it may have been hidden between two larger envelopes, or swallowed by a GAP Kids catalogue, and he never would’ve known.  When there was nothing, he dropped it back where he had found it.

Jalen was sorely missing that $12/hour. Not so much the student, but the money more than made up for it in hindsight.

He passed Momma at the table on his way back, once again yawning and scratching his belly. But this time, Momma watched him, eyes and head tracking his uncouth travel.

When he had almost made it through the dining room, she called out to him.

“Yes, Momma?”

“Jalen, you are unsightly and I’m not gonna have such a train wreck in my house.”

Jalen looked askance at her, muttering low enough as just to be audible: “You let Elijah live here.”

“Elijah works for a living, respectably! You look like you don’t have a living.  You,” she paused, for dramatic emphasis, “look like a bum.”

‘You look like a bum’ was always one of Momma’s favorite sayings, even as she had many to choose from. If Elijah and Jalen’s shirttails were untucked on their way to church?  They were ‘little bums’.  If they came home dirty from play, they were ‘little bums disturbin’ the peace’.  If they fought with one another, they were ‘little bums bout to get the fear of God put in em’.  It wasn’t her highest insult – that was composed of words Jalen wouldn’t dare think in her vicinity – but it held plenty of force from lungs unmarred by the tobacco habits that had dulled the voices of many a friend’s mother.

“Momma, I don’t know what to tell you! I’ve sent out maybe a hundred applications, and I still haven’t heard nothing back.  Not a follow up interview, not even a ‘no thank you’ letter.  Not a blessed thing.”

“Well, you still got one option left. Elijah says nothin’ would make him happier than having you work with him.  And I really think it’s unfair for you to complain about not having a job when there’s a job right here in this house for you.”  Momma was almost pleading with him; Jalen was sure that Elijah wouldn’t be the only one overjoyed if he started working at his daycare.

Jalen squeezed his nails into the palms of his hands. Elijah’s words came unbidden, reminding him of Momma’s innocence in crimes against Jalen.   “Momma, I will never, ever, help Elijah with anything.  Ever.  He ruined his life, he ruined your life, he ruined my life, and he ruined this family.  How you can forgive him for that, I don’t know.”  Jalen tried to restrain the emotion in his voice, tried to keep from screaming to the world.

“How could you say that? Does this family look ruined?”

“He abandoned us! He just up and left, like it was no big deal!”

“Jalen, that’s not how it happened, and you know it.”

“How did it happen, then? I don’t remember him saying goodbye.”

“The boy made some mistakes! He was- he was a boy.  He acted out.  He didn’t have a father to tell him better.   And he was punished for it.”

“I never made those kinds of mistake. I didn’t have a dad to tell me not to.  Hell, I didn’t even have an older brother.”

Momma looked him dead in the eye, and there was a glimmer in hers. “And where you got that drive from, I don’t know.”

They stewed in silence for a while.

“You telling me you were never mad at him?” Jalen looked up from his nails.

“I was angry at him, for a while. But then I remembered that he was just a child.  He was young and full of vinegar.  So forgiveness came quick.  That’s how we learn; we forgive and teach to make sure it happen again.  And then he was released a grown man.  So I was mad, for a time.  But he don’t deserve your hate.  He blames himself for your attitude, and he doesn’t need that on his conscience.”

Words leapt to his tongue and died in mid-air. For a moment, a large-mouth bass threw itself wildly about the deck of a fishing boat floating down the Mississippi in his place.  “G-good, he sh-should,” he sputtered, flabbergasted

Momma drew herself up. “Jalen, you stop being a little bum to your brother if you want to keep living in my house, eating my food, and running up my ‘lectricity bill! You had six years to come home and laze about my house, but you kept yourself at Berkeley – you can’t come back now and lord over everybody.  You’re gonna get yourself a job with your brother, or be living in a cardboard box downtown!  And that’s my final word on it.”

Jalen groped for a chair and sat down, hard.

There was no way this could be healthy for a body. He couldn’t recall the last time he was awake before the sun.  Night still smothered the earth, midsummer air lacking even the hum of cicadas.

Jalen pulled at the constricting collar of his new, company polo shirt. Elijah had insisted he wear the uniform.

He had managed half the bowl of Elijah’s preferred oatmeal when said health nut pulled away from the table. Elijah looked down at Jalen’s bowl, then at his watch.

“We need to be gone by six-thirty, so if you don’t finish your bowl quick you’ll be at a pretty bad caloric deficit by lunch, and then you’ll eat too much at lunch, which isn’t good for calorie distribution.” Jalen wanted to throw his spoonful at Elijah.  He ate it instead, glancing at him out of the corner of his eye.  His brother, always the skinnier of the two, now had a physique that would be the envy of any Abercrombie & Fitch model.  He also had an encyclopedic and obsessive knowledge of the body’s musculature, which he was far too willing to share with Jalen.

They sat in almost-silence for a while. Elijah watched the minutes flicker by on the microwave’s clock.  Jalen watched the foul mush disappear, spoonful by spoonful, never raising his eyes from the bowl.

“You done?” Elijah asked when the bowl was empty, whisking it away before Jalen could say ‘no’, emphasis on the biting sarcasm. Deprived of that small catharsis, Jalen grabbed his coffee mug.  Jalen had fond memories of early Southern California springs spent on the campus quad, nursing a giant cup of coffee and his laptop.  So Elijah didn’t do himself any favors when, returning from the kitchen, he stopped in the doorway, staring at the hunched form of his younger brother.

“We gotta get gone, Jalen. Can you finish your coffee in the car?”  Elijah gave him a small smile.  Jalen stood with feigned stiffness, shuffling his feet to the front door while he sipped his coffee, making sure he took just long enough tying his shoes that the microwave clock read six thirty-one before they left.

Jalen slid in the passenger’s side, holding his coffee at an awkward angle to avoid spillage. Elijah sat in the driver’s seat, fiddling with his thick keychain.  When the car kicked to life, the radio dropped them in the midst of a NPR report on Northern India’s economic development.  Jalen waited, as they pulled away from the curb, for Elijah to change the channel to something more his speed – WFPK 91.9 FM, maybe – but he found Elijah was listening intently, nodding along with the reporter.  Elijah turned to Jalen as the report ended.

“I think that’s really interesting. It’s kind of like how the Rust Belt is so economically depressed right now, while Silicon Valley is doing really good.  What do you think – what’s the college man’s opinion?” Elijah seemed animated, like he knew what he was talking about.  Jalen didn’t believe it for a second.

“I studied American literature in college. Not economics.”  Jalen stared straight ahead, feeling the stickiness of the seat against his lower back.  “Do you even know where India is, Elijah?” The man was obviously trying to impress him, talking ‘economics’ like a ‘college man’.  What an asshole.

“Yes, Jalen, I know where India is.” Elijah watched the dark road for a while, his face flickering between hidden shadow and discolored yellow as they passed under the streetlamps.  “American literature, huh?  I just finished In Persuasion Nation.  It was great.”

Elijah couldn’t know who George Saunders is. He probably Googled ‘modern American writers’ or something to try and impress him.  

“Saunders is fine, I guess. Pastoralia was okay.”  Jalen wished for the rest of the drive to be completed in the whining silence of rubber on pavement.  “My Master’s was on Southern literature of the early 20th century.”

“That’s cool. You read Requiem for a Nun?” Jalen spilled a little of his coffee, spattering across the top of his shoes.

Groping for tissues in the back seat to mop it up, he muttered something about speed bumps to Elijah. This was the longest Jalen had spent with Elijah in more than fifteen years.  Even so, he couldn’t remember his brother reading a letter – he certainly never read the letter of the law, much less obscure World War 1-era Southern literature.

They pulled up to the thin strip mall where Elijah’s daycare was sandwiched between a ‘Mister Money USA’ and a Wing Stop. Jalen clambered out first, emptying the end of his coffee on the asphalt.  The air was as cool as it would get in a Kentucky August; already heavy with the heat of the day.

Jalen looked down from the expanse above him to the tiny front before him. He could see through plate-glass windows the darkened daycare, thick and stained carpet hiding foul linoleum, toys stacked high in the corners.  The door jingled when Elijah unlocked it.

The inside felt miniscule to Jalen. The toys, the chairs, the tables, the amateurish graffiti autographing in crayon along the walls – all shrunk to kneecap-height.  The Munchkins of the Wizard of Oz must’ve lived on furniture much like this.

Elijah disappeared in the back, a harsh fluorescence filling the room soon after. “If you could set out the chairs, Jalen, that’d be great,” he said.

The door jingled again as Jalen was pulling the last chairs apart. A thin woman in her early thirties pushed her way in, swinging a backpack off as she did.   She had one of Elijah’s branded ball caps thrust over her ponytail, but she didn’t spare Jalen a second glance as she hurried into the back.  Muffled sounds of gratitude greeted her arrival out of Jalen’s sight.  “I get blue berry and chocolate chip mix like you ask.  I get gluten free for Sammy too so no more mix-up.”

Jalen settled into one of the tiny chairs, scootching around in a vain attempt to find comfort in a seat a third the size of his posterior.   “Shit.  Sorry, Claudia, but could you run out real quick and get more maple syrup? Jarabe de arce?”

Claudia reappeared, looking straight ahead and down, hurried and harried-looking. “Ass hole, always repeats word in Spanish.  I know what maple syrup is.”  The door jingled for a while after she left.  Inexplicably, Jalen felt far happier than he could remember being for a while.  It was nice, knowing that it wasn’t just him with a grudge against Elijah.

“Jalen, could you come in here for a moment?” Elijah was standing over a large bowl, striations coloring his forearm as he stirred the pancake mix.  “Could you get the blueberry on the griddle for me?  I only have so many arms and it’s already – “ he turned on the spot, still stirring, for a quick glance at the clock behind him – “seven.”

Jalen fumbled in the myriad drawers for a spoon. “And why are we making pancakes?” he said, brow furrowed as he struggled to get a scoop off the spoon and onto the small electric griddle.

“Most of these kids don’t get a chance to eat breakfast before they’re dropped off here. Some of them can’t afford breakfast.  So we’ve got them covered,” Elijah said, handing Jalen his bowl of batter.

The pancakes were browning. The smell of breakfast filled his dissatisfied stomach.  It was Elijah’s fault he was so hungry; how anyone could live on something as foul as that oatmeal, he didn’t know.  It must be a jail thing.

“Hey, Jalen, since this is your first day here, would you like to greet the kids as they come in? I can do the pancakes; I do them normally, anyway.”

The sun was rising now, golden fingers grabbing the knotted curtain of night and pulling itself above the horizon. Unsure of what exactly to do – should he hold the door open, like some kind of valet – he sat in the chair closest to the door.  He didn’t have to wait long.

The first thing he saw was a bobbling run through the parking lot, half-visible. A dark palm slammed into the door, followed by the rest of the child.  He looked at Jalen through the smear he had left on the glass with the eyes of a messiah, inscrutable and yet knowing.  Jalen watched back.

“Jalen, that’s just Darnell, let him in! Is his mother with him?”  Jalen opened the door with reluctance, pulling it just wide enough that the kid’s outsized head could fit through.  He hunkered down to face Darnell.  “Where’s your mom, Darnell?”

                Darnell pointed to the parking lot.  “Can you go get her?”

                He shook his head.  “Why not?”

                “Dropped me off across the street.”  Darnell’s voice was oddly deep, husky like he exhaled secondhand smoke.  There was a four-lane highway that separated this strip mall from the one across the street.  Jalen frowned.

                “He says his mom dropped him off across the street!” Jalen called back to Elijah.  “Does she always do that?”

                Darnell shrugged.  There was no exasperation, or anger, or even apathy in his expression.  It just was.  “You want to sit down?”

                Darnell looked past him for a moment, and then sat down in a random chair.  He winced a little as he shifted in his seat.  Once he had found a position that seemed comfortable enough, he stopped moving.  The only sounds in the room were the faint sizzle of pancakes from the back and Darnell’s soft, raspy breathing.

Jalen stood still for a while, watching Darnell contemplate the Higgs Boson or the fundamental thematic undertones of the universe or whatever Newtonian process was going on underneath that shaved-bald head. “Would you like pancakes?” he managed.

Darnell took his time looking up at him. “Chocolate chip.”

Jalen welcomed the opportunity to escape his presence. He walked quicker than intended to the back, where Elijah was flipping pancakes like he was born to do it. “This kid is weird. Very, very weird.”  Elijah looked up from the griddle, still sliding pancakes around.

“Yeah, that’s Darnell. His mom always drops him off across the street.  I’ve told her before that it’s not okay, that he could get hurt – hell, I’ve waited in that strip mall for half an hour to catch her dropping him off before, and he just shows up!  He doesn’t seem to mind it, though, so I don’t know what else I can do.  He doesn’t seem to mind much, in all honesty.”

“I can tell.” Jalen looked around for a plate. “Shit, Elijah, that’s a lot of pancakes.”  Elijah had made more pancakes in one sitting than Jalen had eaten over 24 years.

Elijah shrugged. “Twenty kids can eat a lot more than you’d think they could.  They don’t all end up inside them, but they’re generally more than willing to help clean up afterwards, so I don’t complain.”

Jalen threw a couple on a plate for Darnell. “Do we have any maple syrup?”

“No, and Claudia needs to hurry. Most of our kids get here around seven-thirty.  Just go ahead and give him the pancakes, they have enough sugar in them anyway.  Juice is in the fridge.”

Jalen poured a cup of juice and took the breakfast back to Darnell. He ate slow, bites taken with his fork held between thumb and middle finger.

It was almost cordial, the way they spoke to each other. Jalen didn’t like it.  If he was too friendly, Elijah might mistake professionalism for forgiveness.

The front door rung, shrill in the contemplative silence. A girl around Darnell’s  age stood on her tiptoes to reach the door handle, almost at a height with the untamed reddish fro that framed her face. Jalen stood, grabbing the door from her.  He looked outside for a parent – there was a Ford Taurus pulling out of the parking lot, but other than that, once again, nothing.

“Elijah, there’s another kid here. Ginger.  Girl.”  Jalen yelled.

 “Sarah?”

“Yup, Mr. Elijah.” Her voice was demure, quiet like a middle child.

“You want any pancakes? We don’t have any syrup right now, but Miss Claudia should be here soon enough with some.”  Elijah’s words boomed – something jail hadn’t changed.  His voice was always commanding, which Jalen envied. His own voice, while far from meek, couldn’t command a room like Elijah’s could, even when they were both children.

She shrugged, digging a palm into one eye. She looked at Jalen as he walked back from under heavy lids; whether out of disinterest or drowsiness, he couldn’t tell.

He didn’t say anything as he filled a plate for her. Elijah had put the pancakes in the microwave to stay warm while he scrubbed the griddle.  Jalen snuck a pancake in one bite – there were more than enough to go around.

Jalen had just set Sarah’s plate in front of her when Claudia tackled the door, both hands struggling with a gallon jug of syrup, a Sam’s Club receipt flapping from the bottom. She once again ran to Elijah, the container plopping on the counter out of sight.  “Gracias, Claudia. Could you take this out to Jalen?” he heard, hearing Elijah’s condescending smile.  Claudia emerged from the back holding a much smaller bottle of syrup, rolling her eyes.

“Here,” she said, smacking the bottle down in front of Sarah. Jalen nodded his thanks, reaching for the syrup.  Sarah got there first, filling half her plate with the amber fluid.  Her fingers came away sticky.  Jalen took the bottle, turning to Darnell, but Darnell had finished and was now staring off into the middle distance, his fork upside-down on his plate.

Jalen put the bottle back in front of Sarah and surreptitiously licked his fingers clean. Sarah had taken a pancake and squished it into a little ball, rolled it in the syrup, and was chewing happily.  A bead of syrup hung from her chin already.

The door rang again, and in walked the first parent. There was at least one person who cared enough about their kid to drop them off in person – or so he thought, until he saw the child.  Dragged in on a full-body monkey child leash, the kid’s head spun.  Not looking at anyone in particular, the mother said, loud, slightly strained, “He ate a whole box of Cocoa Puffs.  Only call me if he grows a third arm or something.” She dropped the leash on the floor and left, her sloppy bun bobbling as she walked.

The androgynous kid remained on the floor for a minute or so, looking at everything. Jalen felt apprehensive about approaching – what if it bit? – but the child had been disposed of so brusquely that he felt sorry.  “Elijah?  Claudia? There’s a kid in a monkey costume sitting on the floor.”

Claudia poked her head out of the back. “That’s Michael. Don’t not look at him.”

“Don’t not look at him? What does that mean?”  There was a warm weight on his feet.  Michael was squatting on his shoes, examining a shoelace he had just untied.  He fiddled with the plastic tip for a second.  Then he put it up his nose.

“Eugh!” Jalen grabbed Michael by the armpits and hoisted him to his feet. Michael seemed nonplussed, his new toy snatched away as soon as it had been given.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s