A stranger had invaded the tiny duplex on Orchard Street—someone who had decided to inhabit the body of my younger brother and make him bigger, thicker, and more menacing than anyone could remember.

I had come home hoping to find my father, and wishing I could talk to him. He calmed me down. But his car was gone: he had probably gone to the store and then to work, and we wouldn’t see him until he returned at 10 that night. Mom was at work. But I wouldn’t have spoken to her. She only made me nervous: I soaked up her anxiety like a sponge.

When I opened the door, I could hear the high squeal of the TV, and there was my brother watching the Cubs. I turned away, trying to hide my grimace, but he probably saw me. We glared at each other a moment. I went into the kitchen to fix lunch and had a temper tantrum, looking at the dirty dishes lining the counter.

I walked over to the door. “So where were you?”

His face showed no change. Jack Brickhouse was getting excited. Dave Kingman had just hit a double, driving in Ivan de Jesus. Then his face froze in silent aggravation. “Huntsville, Alabama.”

The thought that my brother had gone across the country for an extended period of time and I had not known about it disturbed me. But all I could think to ask was, “How was it? Was it hot?”

“No, it was fine. Well, it was hot because I was working.”

“What were you doing?”

“What I’ve been doing for the past year and a half.”

I sighed. “What have you been doing for the last year and a half?”

“Selling pool tables.” He got up—he didn’t just get up, though, he burst forth from the recliner while the footrest was still out and brushed past me. “I’ve got to make a phone call. Could you get out of here?”

“In a minute, I’ve got to finish this sandwich.”

He clicked his tongue and did the traditional thing when one wanted privacy on the phone—dialing the number and then directing the extra-long phone cord out the back door, and sitting on the back steps in the cold. I have often wondered if we all would have gotten along better if we had had a bigger home and not been forced to rub shoulders all the time. Or if my father had been around.

I could still hear his voice outside, though I couldn’t hear all the words. By the sudden friendliness, even tenderness, I guessed he was talking to a girl. I imagined it was The Girl He Left Behind and was now catching up with. I cut tomatoes and put them on my spongy Wonder bread, wishing we had some healthy wheat bread in this house. But wheat bread was a novelty in those days.

Then a sudden explosion of pain, an actual wailing from the back porch. I hurried up cutting my sandwich, knowing there would be trouble. The voice outside rose, growled, and the yelling started. I hurried upstairs with my lunch. Then the back door slammed and the damage started. The phone was slammed. Something hit the floor. I retreated to our shared bedroom and closed the door. “I’ll kill her!” I heard from the kitchen. “How could she do this to me?”

Women always do these things to you, I thought as I turned the TV up, loud, hoping not to hear.

At that moment our mother came home. She had a knack for walking in at the time of greatest tension and intensifying it the way a magnifying glass focusing the sunlight starts a fire.

“What’s wrong?” I heard her ask.

I turned up the TV, hoping not to hear the answer. I was trying to think what I would write for my next column. I only heard yelling, pounding, banging downstairs. It would be something about bingo. Then heavy steps ascended the stairs. “I’m gonna get my gun.”

This got my attention. The door, which always stuck when you closed it, opened with the violent reverberation of vibrating wood. “Where is it?” Then there was the sound of clothes being hurled this way and that—clinking belts, banging shoes. I had put two large sheets across the room as a sort of temporary divider. I could not see what he was doing. But I could practically feel him panting.

“Um, is there a gun in this room?” I asked.

“Mind your own business,” he growled.

Our mother, who always ran toward the fire instead of letting it die down on its own, followed him upstairs. “Don’t do anything stupid!” she cried, her voice rising in a sudden crescendo of fear. “You’ll ruin your life.”

I was about to mutter something to myself but then she said, “Greg, you’ve got to do something. Talk to him.”

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