“You’re a real stand-up guy, you know it?”
“Cut it out.”
“I’m serious, you are. I tell everybody I know. Old Fatty’s a real hero. A prince among men. I’m damn proud to know you.”
Wade said nothing. Counting to ten, letting it pass. He had the Serenity Prayer wrapped so tight around his cerebral cortex this past week it would have taken dynamite to get it off. Would have taken more than this, anyway. This he’d heard before.
“We’ll be there soon enough.”
The clouds hung low and they’d been fighting the rain all the way down from Plattsburgh that morning. Wade had found his brother the night before. It had taken him most of the afternoon but it wasn’t tough. He knew the kind of places to look. Find the bus station, work his way out in concentric circles through every bar and waffle house until eventually he found Charlie hunched over his drink and his Chesterfields and never once surprised to see him. Didn’t matter where, all these River Valley towns had the same basic layout. The Four Roses in New Paltz, Ruby’s Tap in Maltaville. Wade always found him eventually. He was an old hand.
“Swear to God I don’t even recognize you anymore, Fatty. You look good.”
“I am good.”
“So I see. So I see. Used to be there was a time, you’d come crawling in all beat up. Just beat to shit. Worse than me, even.”
“You were your own worst enemy.”
“That was a long time ago, Charlie.”
“Amen to that, Brother. Amen to that.”
They were passing through familiar territory, though Wade couldn’t say he ever liked it much. They used to come up here when they were kids. Spend weekends driving up around the lakes, digging for arrow heads in the woods while their father sat in the car and smoked. Sayerville, Hastings, Granite Falls. This stretch of highway always got to Wade, even then. The way the trees seemed to close in around him. The way they always seemed to shut out the sun. Even in the back seat of their father’s Plymouth Valiant, his nose in a comic book and his brother asleep, Wade couldn’t wait to get through it.
“I guess when they sent you down they knew what they were doing, huh? Guess they had it all figured out. Would’ve loved to hear that conversation, all of you sitting around the kitchen table. Holding hands. Did they make you pray, Fatty? Would’ve loved to hear that. How’s old Lois doing, anyway? She still bat-shit crazy as ever?”
“She worries about you.”
“I doubt that, Wade. I doubt that sincerely.”
“Believe what you want.”
Charlie had a wife downstate who believed in angels and a daughter named Becca he never saw. Wade would get phone calls from them once in a while, every couple of months, usually about money they needed right away or legal threats they didn’t understand. They swung from one emergency to the next, and Wade avoided them as much as he decently could.
“Oh yeah? And what about you, Fatty?” Charlie turned to his brother, smiling. “You worry about me, too?”
“I try not to,” Wade said, shifting back into silence. Shifting his attention to the taillights in front of him.
“Goddamn,” Charlie said after a minute, turning away again. “Goddamn.”
There was a woman waiting for Wade back home, waiting for his phone call when this whole thing was over. Not that this was anything Wade was prepared to bring up now. There had been women before. Some serious. One he had even thought he’d marry, back before things got so out of hand. But that was Wade’s life, his business and his alone. Some things Charlie didn’t need to know. His new friend’s name was Anne and that was a phone call he was looking forward to making.
Charlie had a smell to him now, Wade couldn’t deny it. Something inside, something chemical. The kind of smell that doesn’t wash off. Thirty years more or less had taken its toll. Indestructible blue-eyed boy, trophies on the shelf. They grew up in the same bedroom and now Wade could barely stand it.
“Charlie…” he said, but Charlie had fallen asleep again already, head back and mouth open, a thousand miles away.
* * *
“Eat something, I’ve got money.”
“Not real hungry.”
And once Charlie started eating he couldn’t seem to stop. Strips of bacon and fat round sausages, mountains of hash browns and eggs over easy. Corned beef hash. Whole wheat toast and strawberry jelly. The waitress was keeping herself at a safe distance from him, clutching the laminated menus tight across her chest, handing the food over carefully when their orders came up. And she was right to be careful. Charlie had a way of just going off on people. You had to watch him, you always did. You’d be fine, everybody laughing and drinking and having fun, and he could just turn on a dime. Wade had seen some things. Broken glass and crying girls and blood. Wade had seen some terrible things around Charlie.
And it was only once they got out of the car, once they sat down surrounded by standard Saturday afternoon families, that Wade realized just how ragged his brother had become. Long hair matted back out of his red-rimmed eyes, accidental beard going gray. Fingernails dirty. Yellow, long and cracked. Old camouflage army jacket caked in dirt, ripped through at the collar. Painfully thin to look at. His brother looked savage, like something dragged out of the woods. Wade studied Charlie and Charlie looked away.
He had a bluebird tattooed to the web of skin between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, and that was new. That Wade hadn’t seen.
“Oh, yeah, you like that? That’s my little California bluebird.”
“San Francisco, yeah. Was living out there for a while.”
“I didn’t know that. When were you out there?”
“There’s some things you don’t know.”
The waitress came by with the coffee pot in her hand and Charlie pushed his cup across the table toward her. “Please,” he said.
“So how was San Francisco?”
“Well, nobody had flowers in their goddamn hair, if that’s what you mean.” Charlie shoveled in another forkful of hash, speared a triangle of toast into the yoke of his egg. “Complicated. San Francisco was complicated.”
Charlie looked up at him from across the table. He shook his head.
“You’re not really one for letting things lie, are you, Fatty?”
Wade tried to meet his brother’s stare, couldn’t. Charlie went back to his food.
“Anyway, not like it matters much. Six months later I was right back here, same old shit. And that part of the story you already know.”
Wade got the phone call three afternoons before, the phone call he used to get all the time but now only a couple of times a year. The heavy liquid voice of his brother drunk. Car towed in, police up his ass. Some new variation of the same basic theme. This time Glens Falls, and fast. Good old Fatty to the rescue. He’d explain when he saw him, and when he saw him he didn’t explain a thing. There’d be a time when the phone calls wouldn’t come at all anymore, and that’s how Wade would know.
“She’s, you know…” Wade shrugged. “She’s alright. I guess she’s alright.”
“Boyfriends, school? Stuff like that?”
The last time Wade saw his niece she was dressed all in black and he suspected she was high as a kite. Though it was hard to know what counted as high anymore. She was sitting on the couch next to Lois, black hood of her sweatshirt pulled up around her face, staring at the TV and flipping through the eight hundred channels they had without saying a word. For almost an hour Wade was in there with them, one channel after another and not a word. He saw her sometimes at the mall in Nanuet, hanging around the Wishing Well with a whole crew of kids that looked just like her. Big heavy boots laced up to their knees, black jeans and black sweatshirts and black hair hanging down over their eyes. Studs and nails poking out of their faces. And she either didn’t recognize Wade or pretended not to. Either one was fine by him.
“She’s sixteen, Charlie. Who knows how she is?”
* * *
“You know, Charlie, it’s not too late. It’s not too late to turn all this around.”
Charlie pushed his plate away from him and looked up across to his brother.
“Here we go,” he said.
“I’m serious, it’s not. I was worse, you said it yourself.”
“Wade? Wade, don’t start this shit.”
“Just hear me out.”
“I’ve…” And then Charlie slammed his palm down on the table so hard the silverware danced and the tables around them went silent.
“Come on, easy.”
“I heard you, Wade. Goddamn it, I heard you. Been listening to this same fucking Vince Lombardi shit for… Goddamn it, I heard you.”
“Ok, Ok. Eat your food, Charlie…”
“Goddamn it, Wade….”
“Calm down. Just calm down.”
Wade reached about halfway across the table, but then the waitress was there and Charlie pulled his arm back and Wade let it go.
“Is everything all right over here?”
Out in the grass margins of the parking lot Charlie puked up everything he had eaten. One hand up against a tree, his body fighting against itself. Wade sat behind the wheel of his car, waiting. Engine running, radio on low, looking away. When he was done, Charlie spit a couple of times to clear his mouth, then climbed into the car without a word. He was asleep almost immediately. Wade cracked a window open against the smell and pulled back out onto the highway.
* * *
Two kids in a room, seven and ten. One sick and scared, fever, hot and freezing cold. In bed for a week and not knowing what was what. Not knowing one day from another. His mother walking him to the bathroom and holding him shaking as he sat. He remembered the smell. Not knowing when he was awake and when he wasn’t. Faces coming to him, ceiling, in and out. Mother, father, doctor, ceiling. In and out. Mother, father. Cold palm against his forehead, rings colder than the rest. Shivering and shaking in his NFL pajamas. His brother gone and his parents terrified. Terrified for Wade, terrified for Charlie. Terrified the illness would spread. Forty years ago, and it felt like four hundred. Felt like a thousand. Another life, and two other people. Two other people, and both of them gone.
He kept a bed now, just in case. He knew the odds were stacked against it ever happening, but he kept a bed just in case. Clean sheets, a change of clothes, a list of people to call. That’s all it was, steps. You do this, you don’t do that. Steady steps in the right direction. Wade could help him if he ever got the chance, he knew the terrain. He had mapped out the terrain already.
* * *
“Up here’s good.”
“Here? Up where?”
Wade looked out through the windshield and there was nothing. Highway, trees, deep embankment. Somewhere south of Palatine, he wasn’t really sure. They hadn’t passed an exit for miles.
“Up here’s close enough.”
Another hour or two and they’d be home. The trees would give way to buildings again and the roads would widen out. Car lots and gigantic flags. They’d be back on terra firma, they’d be fine. But Wade knew better than to argue with his brother, so he slowed to a stop on the side of the road.
“Why don’t you come with me, Charlie? Check in, get cleaned up a little? See Becca, why not?” Wade stared out through the windshield, not daring to turn his head.
“I don’t think so, Wade.”
“A couple of days, why not?”
For a while Charlie didn’t say anything, but then finally he shook his head.
“I don’t think that’ll work. Thank you, though. No, this is fine.” Charlie opened the car door.
“At least let me at least take you into town.”
“I’m good, Fatty. I’m good.”
“You need some money, I guess?
Charlie said nothing. Looked down at the bluebird tattoo on his hand. Wade reached into his back pocket for his wallet.
“Well, shit Fatty, you know me…”
“Here, take it. It’s uh...” Wade took out everything but twenty dollars, folded it over and handed it to Charlie. “Not sure how much is there.”
Charlie nodded, saying nothing. He took the money and put it in the breast pocket of his camouflage jacket.
“I'll get you back.”
For a minute Wade thought he was going to run, but he just sat there, staring out through the windshield at the highway ahead.
“What’re you going to tell them?” He asked finally, looking up.
“What’s it matter? Tell them I couldn’t find you, I guess. Tell them something.”
Charlie opened the door again, and this time he climbed out.
“I’ll be seeing you, Charlie.”
“Don’t doubt it.”
Wade tooted the horn as he passed his brother on the side of the road, and Charlie shot up a little wave. A few seconds later he was gone.