Here is a short story I wrote, first, for a Facebook writing group I had belonged to. The Criteria: 1,000 Words / Theme: improper directions / Implements: a writing instrument and a cup. (I won the peer Contest.)
After that, it was published in a short story anthology.
Based loosely on my brother, who I did have to find a few times.
* * *
There’s a small unframed black-n-white photograph on top of my dresser of me and my brother dated May ’63. We’re sitting on top of a hood of a ’57 Chevy, in mid-laugh, the delighted glee only young children possess. My hands are chest high, in a blur, as if I were clapping. My brother looked happy. Maybe that’s before the bipolar sickness kicked in with the tantrums and mood swings that disturbed his boyhood dreams, and before the unleashing of the monster that drove my parents apart.
Next to the photo sits his toddler cup, a white plastic miniature cup with a handle on either side, a sturdy grip for clumsy tiny toddler hands. The pink hippo peeking out from a red train caboose on one side and the green-dotted giraffe on the other smile at me as I tenderly held the cup as I inspected it, dust particles dancing in the sunlight peeking through the blinds of the bedroom window.
For some reason, I needed to touch and scrutinize the plastic cup every now and then as if I would someday detect a juice ring inside the rim or get a whiff of sour milk or, even better, detect the faint scent of toddler breath. But when I brought the cup to my nose, as with all the other times, it only smelled like plastic, even after all of these years, and all I saw inside was dust.
I felt especially reminiscent after I hung up from mother’s call insisting that we go search for my brother again. How many times have we searched? Half a dozen? We were like a couple of private eyes with limited skills on an ill-prepared scavenger hunt with few clues. The modus operandi is to drive around a neglected neighborhood looking for a brother who probably didn’t give a damn about family ties anyway. That didn’t deter my mother though, who protected herself from hurt and frustration by stoically sitting ramrod straight in the passenger seat with folded hands, face-forward, her eyes darting to and fro in quick movements in case Brian happened to suddenly jump out of an alley.
At times, we’ve found Brian after driving to the last address we had on hand. We’d drive slowly, craning our necks, looking for his car, wondering if it were still operational. We’d cross our fingers hoping we’d see one of his kids playing out in the street, unsupervised and dirty, like we had on a previous hunt.
While driving, I’d find myself daydreaming that I would notice Brian wave to us from a freshly painted porch, surrounded by bleach-white wicker furniture with fluffy decorative pillows. He would look healthy, his eyes and face clear and his teeth miraculously gleaming and all securely anchored in place, as they should be.
My bubble of disjointed pseudo-memories popped as we tentatively rolled to a stop in front of a small square yard that appeared neglected and forlorn as weeds grew up around scattered forgotten toys, the old blue paint on the porch chipped. The second slated step was crooked catching the heel of my left shoe as I climbed up, like an angry twisted witch’s hand.
We weren’t surprised to learn that we had missed Brian and his family by one day. They had already abruptly uprooted, probably in the middle of the night to avoid the invisible all-seeing eyes behind closed living room curtains and to keep them from witnessing the transfer of sleeping children, and belongings stuffed into green plastic bags.
I briefly admired their spunk and ingenuity and wondered how their lives would have been different if my brother and his girlfriend had actually spent their energy on working rather than running from debt collectors and peddling white powder.
A fragile Mexican woman answered my timid knock and waved her bright plastic yellow-gloved hands as she spoke rapidly in broken English. I returned quickly to the car, carefully jumping over the dark space in the steps, needing to write her information down before the cleaning woman ran out of patience, excited that we were this close.
As I walked towards mother, she gruffly shoved the passenger door open, scraping the curb, and thrust an envelope and a small pencil at me. “Here, use this.” I wanted to grab my phone but it was simpler to comply. I wondered why my mother owned such a small pencil. Had she learned to golf? Is she on a bowling league?
As I felt the smooth roundness of the petite pencil and the dull tip of the lead, I suddenly had a confusing thought: maybe we were the dysfunctional ones. My walk back to the neglected sad house slowed. What if my brother was really running from . . . us? I glanced back at my mother, who anxiously watched me, poised and intent like a cat. I noticed, as if for the first time, the old-lady droopiness of her shoulders and her unfocused cataract-glazed eyes.
The directions that I had impatiently jotted on the used window envelope weren’t even to an existing address but to a dead-end near the freeway. Was it left to be given to creditors, or only to family who happened to wander by? We didn’t discuss our disappointment or sadness as per usual; Mom only inhaled through her nose and exhaled a deep sigh. Often, I can only guess at mother’s emotions, and sometimes, even mine.
After dropping mom off, I felt exhausted and dirty and looked forward to a long soapy shower. I walked into my bedroom, took off my sweater and something dropped to the hardwood floor. I picked up the stubby pencil and clasped it tightly for a moment before dropping it into my brother’s toddler plastic sippy cup.
“I miss you bro,” I whispered as I glanced at the faded photo of two giggling children sitting on the hood of a ’57 Chevy. “See you around.”