Just for laughs, me and my cousins grab one of Violet’s wigs and we dress baby Matty up like Elvis Presley. We’re on the back porch—smoking Violet’s dope, drinking beer we bought with Charles’s fake ID—when the B-52’s come on the radio. Everybody gets caught up in Private Idaho. We forget all about tiny Elvis. He takes a nosedive out of the porch swing and starts to wail like a wounded bobcat. Charles and his younger brother, Clay, head for the woods at the first sign of trouble.
Matty reaches out and hollers, “Budger, Budger!” It’s Matty’s word for brother, which is what he calls me even though I’m really his uncle. I pick him up. His lip is busted; there’s blood on his face and his Elvis-do is sideways.
Behind us, the screen door opens and slams shut. My big sister, Violet. She’s skin and bones. A red bandanna covers her bald head, and her eyebrows are painted on with a pencil.
“Give him here,” she says.
“I got him,” I say. “Go back in and lie down.”
“Let me have my boy.”
I hand him over but he’s too heavy for her so I help her sit on the steps.
“Run and get a bottle of Mercurochrome and some cotton balls.”
I don’t move. I stare at the tree trunk we use for a table and the ashtray on top. It’s overflowing with butts and roaches. Beside it sits Violet’s medicine bottle. It should be filled with weed, but it’s every bit as empty as the Old Milwaukee cans scattered around the porch.
“Go on. Run.”
I go, but for a time I stand on the other side of the screen door watching Violet rock Matty and sing to him. She doesn’t really sing so much as she just hums along with Have You Ever Seen The Rain, but it works and Matty stops crying.
I’m rummaging through the medicine cabinet when I hear mini-explosions coming from the woods. Charles and Clay are setting off cherry bombs. They sound like little cannons. I close my eyes and imagine one of those Civil War battles we’re always hearing about in school. Everybody likes to say it was brother against brother. I see Charles and Clay dressed in matching uniforms. Even though they’re on the same side, they still fire their baby cannons at one another because they’re such assholes.
Charles always has a pocket full of fireworks. Black Cats, Silver Foxes, Smoke Grenades and M-80s. Every night when we’re walking out of the woods, he drums up one last bottle rocket—like it’s a big surprise—and hands it to Clay. He hands Clay his lighter, too, and lets him fire off the final one of the night. It’s always the best.
I spot the Mercurochrome. It’s buried in the medicine cabinet. Stuck on a shelf in the middle of Violet’s painkillers. I pull it out and put it in my pocket, then I study Violet’s medicine, picking up one bottle after another, reading the labels and staring at the pills inside. They’re shaped and colored like freaky planets from an alternate universe, and they’ve got outer space names to match: Percocet, Darvon, Elavil. Useless against Violet’s pain. It’s weed she needs.
Charles knows a guy. He sells bootleg and fireworks. Other shit, too. Like weed. His name is Commodore and sometimes this Commodore will make a trade with you if you’re in a bad way. Last year in eighth grade, Tommy Larkin got a box of Roman Candles for a busted-up Zebco rod and reel. I calculate the value of a day spent on Planet Percocet, or an afternoon rolling around in the purple haze of a distant galaxy called Darvon. I come up with one million dollars. I convert that number to an earthly sum fitting an ex-con named Commodore who lives with his one-legged mom in a rusty trailer at the dead end of a dirt road on the other side of Lively Creek. I figure a dime bag, two at the most.
But I need Charles to get to Commodore, and King Charles doesn’t need anything from me. What stands between us now is a bicycle, beat up something awful with most of the green paint flaked off and a chain that won’t stay on. But it might as well be a brand new Cadillac for all the weight it carries between me and Charles.
“You two will be just like brothers.”
That’s what Violet said the day she told me Charles and Clay were moving in.
I said, “He’s already got a brother, thank you very much. And so do you.”
“Now, don’t be that way, honey. You’ll see, you two will be just like Dad and Uncle Willis.”
We keep a picture over the mantel, of Dad and Uncle Willis with their arms around each other. They’re both wearing mirrored aviators, t-shirts and dog tags. It’s the day they shipped out. A Pall Mall hangs from Uncle Willis’s lips. Dad is smiling.
Uncle Willis did all right. He made it out. He came home. Dad didn’t. After Uncle Willis got back he started drinking and running around with married women. He finally got himself shot and killed by Tanya Clark’s husband, Hoyt. Charles and Clay shuffled around a lot after that. They went up north and lived with our old lady aunt who was rumored to be a Catholic. Then down to Mississippi to a foster family who raised baby goats. Last year they came back to Georgia and moved in with me and Violet.
Charles showed up wearing Uncle Willis’s aviators and his dog tags. “You’re every bit the spitting image,” Violet said. Then she said it again, “Every bit.”
I decided I didn’t much care for the looks of him. What right did he have? Showing up looking like that and talking like that? Telling his stories about that fishing trip on Nickajack Lake when Uncle Willis let him drive the boat, or that one time when they went to Atlanta to see the Braves play and spent the night in a Howard Johnson’s with a swimming pool. And Violet hanging on every word. I never said anything about it, but that’s what I thought. What right did he have?
I cram Violet’s pills in my pocket and head back to the porch. Matty grins and reaches out. Violet’s taken off his wig and fixed his hair so he looks like Matty again. She hands him over. I doctor his lip and he starts to wail. But I walk him around the yard, and we count the lightning bugs that are starting to shine.
In the woods, Charles fires off the first bottle rocket of the night. It barely makes it above the treetops, and it’s nothing more than a flicker against a sky that’s just beginning to fade. But when I point it out to Matty, he laughs and he claps, then he reaches for the empty sky and hollers for more.
The next morning we’re sitting there in our underwear eating Pop-Tarts when Clay starts in. “How come I can’t go?” he wants to know. “I’ll mind you. I won’t talk back.”
Charles ignores him. He licks his saucer clean, then walks over to the sink and tosses it in. I get up and follow him.
Clay won’t let it go. “Is it because I sassed you yesterday? Is it because I sassed you in front of Hub Grant and all them?”
Charles still doesn’t answer. He turns on the water and goes to town on last night’s supper dishes. I cooked—Beanee Weenees and Tater Tots—so Charles is supposed to clean. That’s our deal. But he barely finishes his own saucer before he shuts the water off and turns to look at me.
Wearing those aviators, and with that smirk on his face, he’s every bit the spitting image. All that’s missing is the Pall Mall.
“Explain your brilliant plan to me one more time, Einstein.”
I say, “I reckon we could trade the pills to that guy you know. We could get a couple of dime bags for Violet. We could trade our goods to Commodore. We could do it for Violet.”
“Our goods? You’ve been watching too much Starsky & Hutch.”
He’s leaning against the sink with his arms folded and his legs crossed. The pills are on the table.
Clay picks up a bottle and gives it a shake, but Charles snaps his fingers and points to the table so Clay puts the pills back. Then Charles tosses him the dishtowel and Clay heads to the sink. He lays into the supper dishes while Charles crosses to the table and sits down. He opens up each bottle, dumps out the pills and runs his hand over them like they’re a pile of rock candy.
I take a seat across from him.
“You don’t know the first thing about it,” he says. “Commodore sells fireworks and bootleg. What makes you think he’d be interested in this big load of bullshit?” He picks up a hand full of pills and lets one or two spill through his fingers. He looks at me, but all I see is my own twisted face reflected in his aviators.
Then I think about that bicycle. Lately, I’ve been thinking about that bicycle a lot. Every time I look at Charles, that’s what I see.
The fight was over a year ago, soon after Charles and Clay moved in. At the time, I walked away from it feeling good about things. After a while, it hardly ever crossed my mind anymore, and when it did, I was convinced that I got the best of Charles. Then Violet got sick, and I found myself recollecting on a regular basis. Me and Charles rolling down the stone steps on the back porch, the pain in my wrist when I fell on it and broke it. The feeling of satisfaction, even joy you might say, when I jumped up and swung my other arm and made contact with Charles’s lip. His aviators flew off and in the middle of it all I stood there trying to remember if I’d actually ever seen his eyes before. I was sure I had but I just couldn’t recall. That pause gave Charles the upper hand and he was on me again, then we were both on the ground once more. I was on my back, and Charles, the same age as me but a lot bigger, was on top of me with his fist pulled back ready to do some damage. But he didn’t slug me. Instead he started to cry. He put both fists against my chest, and I couldn’t move. He held me there, dripping tears and blood all over my face.
I push my chair back and get up from the table. I walk over to the sink where Clay is almost finished with the dishes. Then I walk back to the table and sit down.
“What makes you think Commodore wouldn’t be interested?” I say, “You don’t know. Bootleg’s no better than pills. Especially to some loser shacked up with his mom in a rusty doublewide. You don’t have to be an Einstein to figure that one out, Einstein.”
“What about me,” Clay hollers from the sink. “I’m part of it. Don’t forget about me.”
We ignore him.
Charles says, “And tell me this, what do you plan on saying to Commodore? Howdy Commodore, pleased to meet you, would you like to buy some dope off me and my cousin?”
We sit there cussing and trading Einsteins while Clay finishes the dishes.
Soon as he turns off the water, we hear it. It sounds like the dishwater leaving the sink, but it’s not. It’s Violet breathing in the other room, low and gurgly. It keeps going long after the dirty dishwater has gone down the drain, and Clay is standing by the table with the dishtowel in his hand, waiting for a word or a look or anything from Charles.
Nobody says anything.
Violet sucks in a fast and deep breath like she’s been under water, then she coughs.
“Yuck,” Clay says.
“Don’t be a dick,” Charles tells him. Then he says to me, “Well, put your shoes on, asshole, unless you plan on going to see Commodore in your bare feet.”
I go to my room and throw on yesterday’s smelly t-shirt and a pair of tennis shoes, then I sit on the bed.
I guess you could say the fight was my fault. Like I said, Charles and Clay had just moved in. It was summer. We were on the back porch. Clay was playing Superman. Or maybe it was Batman. I just remember he was wearing a towel like it was a cape, and he would jump off the side of the porch, again and again, with his ratty-ass cape flapping behind him.
I was shelling corn for the chickens. Charles had wandered off someplace. He was supposed to help with the corn. That was the deal. The last thing Violet told us when she left for the flower shop that morning was to shell all the corn in the crib. “All of it,” she said. “I mean it, boys. Don’t burn down the house. Don’t kill each other. And finish shelling the corn. Besides that, I don’t really care. Is that too much to ask?”
But soon as Violet left so did Charles, and I sat there shelling corn by myself. The kernels were hard and dried. Perfect for shelling. By noon I’d half way filled the oil drum at the end of the porch. I got up to walk to the corncrib for another bushel, that’s when I saw Charles. He carried a greasy chain in one hand; with the other he was pushing a piece-of-shit bike up the drive. It used to be green, now it was mostly rust. I figured that’s why whoever owned it had tossed it, or why they wouldn’t much care that Charles had come in and stole it right out from under their noses. He wheeled it up to the porch and stopped, held out his arms in a big, showy gesture, with a shitty grin on his face that said, Now I’ve got a bike and you don’t.
I went to the barn, filled up my basket and hauled it back to the porch. Charles occupied himself with the bike chain, Clay kept jumping, and I shelled my way through the rest of the corn.
By dark, the oil drum was finally full. I got up to go to the kitchen for a glass of tea when Charles said, “Hey man, while you’re up, how about bringing me a Coke?”
I stood there watching Clay jump and watching Charles mess with the bike chain. I bent down and picked a kernel up off the floor. It was shriveled to the size of a BB. “Hey man,” I said, “Why don’t you go fuck yourself?”
It wasn’t planned. I’d never thought of it or practiced it. The words just came out in a perfect imitation of Charles’s voice.
He stood. He didn’t come at me. Not at first. It wasn’t exactly a smile that played around his lips. It wasn’t a smirk either. He wasn’t the spitting image anymore.
He shrugged and started to turn away.
It came as natural to me as baiting a hook or wringing a chicken’s neck. The kernel flew from my fingertips like it had been fired from a slingshot. It hit Uncle Willis’s aviators on the upper right side by Charles’s nose, and it barely made a sound. One small speck of mirror is all. Damage the size of a fruit fly. It was nothing. But to Charles it was something.
A few days after it happened, Hub Grant came by to pick up the oil drum full of corn. He works at the Co-Op. He grinds the corn into chicken feed for us.
Violet was at the flower shop. It was hot, so Clay was trying to work up a breeze in the porch swing, fanning himself with a Frisbee. Charles had wandered off again. I helped Hub load the drum into the back of his truck as best I could with my messed up wrist. He asked me what happened to it. I told him I fell. He didn’t ask me anything else about it. He got in his truck to leave and stuck his head out the window.
“Hey buddy, I meant to ask you, how’d you like that bicycle?”
I was standing on the steps; the truck was parked a couple of feet away.
“You know … the one your cousin fixed up for you. It used to belong to one of my boys. Charles found it in the shed behind the Co-Op. Said he wanted you to have something nice. We made a trade. I’m gonna raise some hogs on that piece of land I own behind the post office. I need a fence. Charles is over there right now, creosoting the fence posts and laying them in the ground. Lordy, can you imagine? In this heat? You ask me, I sure got the better end of that deal.”
I still didn’t say anything.
“Well, you boys stay out of jail now.”
“We’ll try,” Clay said from the porch swing. “Come back and see us.”
“I surely will.”
He drove off.
It wasn’t in the tool shed, or in the corncrib, or anywhere else in the barn. I walked across the pasture and down to the little holler where everybody dumps their broken shit. It wasn’t there either. I stopped at Tommy Larkin’s house. They weren’t home but I looked in their carport anyway. Tommy’s older brother Hank steals stuff. Even from people he likes. Tommy calls it a friendly five-finger discount. The bike wasn’t there. It wasn’t anywhere. I looked until dark. Charles never brought it up again. Neither did I. I kept waiting for him to tell Violet what an asshole I’d been. I figured I see him riding the bike one day, popping wheelies and showing off. None of that happened. Then Violet got sick.
Now I worry over Violet’s life and that fight with Charles like they’re the same. When I’m not thinking about one, I’m thinking about the other.
I get up off the bed and go out to the living room. I pull a chair up to the couch and hold Violet’s hand. She’s sleeping, and Matty is sitting on the floor with Clay. They’re pretending to play checkers, but mostly Matty just likes to stick the checkers in his mouth because he’s teething.
I tell Clay, “Don’t let him swallow one of those, do you hear?”
He doesn’t answer.
“Do you hear?”
“I hear you, I’m sittin’ right here. I’m not retarded.”
Charles comes out and says, “Don’t be such a dick, Clay.” Then he grabs the pills off the table and goes out and waits for me on the porch.
I hold Violet’s hand as long as I can. It’s as light as air, like a quail feather or a June bug. Something that could float away as soon as I let it go.
Charles hops off the porch and heads down the drive towards the main road. When he crosses the highway and steps into the woods—woods that are as thick and overgrown as any jungle anywhere—when I lose sight and sound of him completely, I finally let go of Violet’s hand, and get up to run after him.