Jordan is out on the porch shouting something about getting out of the rain, but I'm already too wet to care. My eyes are half-closed, and the mud and gravel driveway is dissolving under my feet. I slip coming around the side of the car, then nearly go down again trying to close the trunk. By the time I get into the house I'm soaked to the skin. My entire body is alive and tingling.
``That's a hell of a storm we've got going out there," Jordan says, and bolts the door against the wind. ``You'd best get yourself changed."
``I think you're right." I step out of my sopping shoes and wipe the rain from my eyes. Jordan takes my bags and starts up the stairs.
I've never been here before, and as I shrug out of my jacket my first impression is of finished hardwood everywhere. Nothing is papered or paneled or painted over. Even the furniture is wood without cushions, and I find myself wondering if my brother has become some kind of backwoods ascetic. I run my hand along the wall as I follow him up to the second floor. It feels smooth and strangely solid, like granite compared to the plaster and drywall I'm used to.
``Well, here you go," says Jordan. I turn a corner and step up into a short hallway. ``Your bedroom's the first on the right. Mine is the next up, and the bathroom's at the end of the hall. There's fresh towels on the bed and a robe in the closet, in case you want to take a shower." He leaves my bags in the doorway and holds out his hand. I take it, and he pulls me into a bear hug. ``It's good to see you, Barry."
``It's good to see you too," I try to say, but my face is pressed against his shoulder and I'm not sure he understands. After a moment he opens his arms and steps back. The front of his sweatshirt is soaked.
``I guess I'll get started on dinner," he says. ``Make yourself at home." I nod and turn away. He sets one foot on the top step, then stops.
``Thanks for coming. Even after you called, I wasn't sure you'd make it. I want to... I mean, I feel like maybe now we can really be brothers again."
He hesitates, and I know I ought to say something. Instead I stand watching him, until finally he turns and continues down, around the corner and out of sight.
I'm much relieved to see a mattress on the bed. I was half-afraid of finding that Jordan sleeps on wooden slats now. The floor-to-ceiling window on the east wall lacks blinds or curtains, but at the end of a cul-de-sac six miles out of town I don't suppose it really matters. The bed is made up with flannel sheets and a sky-blue down comforter -- exactly what I kept on my bed when we were kids -- and a sealed envelope is sitting on my pillow. When I open it I find a black marker drawing of a broad-shouldered stick man on a crumbling piece of red construction paper. He's wearing a mask and cape, and at the bottom of the page, in huge, clumsy block letters, it says MY BIG BROTHER.
I sit down on the bed and run my fingers across the paper. It must have been sitting in a box somewhere for twenty years.
``Yeah?" His voice drifts up from the kitchen, just audible over the drumming of the rain.
``This picture is terrific! Where did you find it?"
``On the attic floor. Jenny dumped a lot of my boxes when she was packing her stuff."
I don't know what to say to that. A flash of late-season lightning pulls my eyes to the window. When I look back down I see that the water dripping from my hair is eating through the desiccated paper like acid, smearing the stick man's head and boring a small, neat hole through the center of his chest.
I can still remember the last time I really felt like Jordan's big brother. I was fourteen, he was twelve, and we were playing two-on-two basketball against Doug Thompson and Derek Green at the high school gym. Jordan was still skinny and knock-kneed as a baby giraffe then, but he was already as tall as any of us, and that almost-unnatural quickness and grace he eventually grew into was just beginning to show.
I was a pretty good ballplayer -- I started at forward for the freshman team -- but Jordan was unstoppable that day. He went outside, he went inside, he burned Derek on pump fakes and blew past him on backdoor cuts. We won the first two games going away, and we were on our way to the third when Derek gave Jordan a hard elbow to the chest on an inside move, then pushed him into the basket support when Jordan elbowed him back.
I started toward them, but Doug grabbed me by the back of the neck and yanked me off my feet. He kicked me once in the chest and once in the head, then bent down over me and said something about staying on the floor. My mouth tasted of bile and there was a sound like a rising wind in my ears, and I spent the next thirty seconds or so wrapped tight in my limbs, squinting at the white spots pinwheeling in front of me and trying to breathe.
When I finally rolled over and sat up, still rubbing my chest and blinking, Doug was gone. Derek was sitting almost beside me, bleeding from the mouth and nose and trying to force a broken tooth back into its socket, and Jordan was standing under the basket with his fists at his waist. His upper lip was curled into a half-snarl, and I remember looking up at him and understanding with a sudden clarity that that grimace was meant for me.
Jordan calls me down to dinner almost as soon as I'm out of the shower. He's made us whole-grain pasta and what he calls homemade sauce -- Ragu doctored with onions, mushrooms, ground beef and peppers. I don't say much once the food is served, mostly because I haven't eaten since breakfast at a Dunkin' Donuts in Syracuse, and through twenty minutes and two helpings I barely come up for air. Jordan cleans his plate once, then sits sipping iced tea, running his fingers over the grain in the surface of the dining table and watching me eat.
When I'm finished he claps me on the shoulder and says ``Same old Barry," gathers our dishes and drops them in the sink. The rain is still coming down outside, but softer now, like the footfalls of children on the roof rather than cattle. Jordan opens the refrigerator and gets two beers from the inside shelf.
``So," he says. ``How are things, Barry? How are they treating you up north?"
``Well enough," I say. Jordan sits down, twists the top off my bottle and hands it across the table.
``Is that all? Come on, Barry. I haven't seen you in a year and a half."
I shrug. ``Did Dad tell you how I was complaining last summer about the old lady upstairs?"
``The deaf one with the Sinatra albums?"
``Right." I take a long pull at the beer. It's a local brand, cold and sour, with a bitter aftertaste and a hint of metallic tang. ``Well, in August she tripped on the top landing and fell down the stairwell. She broke her hip and one of her arms, and when she got out of the hospital her son finally decided to put her in a home." I take another drink. The second taste is worse than the first. ``He flew in all the way from Cleveland to move her stuff out, but when he got there she wouldn't let him in the door. So it's the night before the first day of classes, and I'm down in my apartment trying to get my lecture notes straight while this poor guy, who must be at least sixty himself, is standing in the hallway upstairs begging his deaf mother to let him in, banging on the door and shouting until one in the morning."
Jordan grins and shakes his head. He waits for me to go on, but I'm busy trying to get the label off my bottle. Finally he leans forward and says ``So what happened? Did she let him in?"
The label is halfway off, still intact. ``I don't know. When I got home from school the next day she was gone. A couple of college girls live up there now."
Jordan's eyebrows come together over the bridge of his nose and the smile disappears. ``So what's the point, Barry?" My label comes off in a single piece. I think that used to mean something.
``No point," I say. ``I'm all out of lectures. I'll tell you what, though. There have been nights these last two months when I've fallen asleep to gangsta rap and had happy dreams of New York, New York. "
We sit and drink in silence for a while after that. Jordan finishes his beer, gets another from the refrigerator and finishes that as well, and all the while I'm staring at the beads of sweat running down the outside of my bottle and thinking that I probably should not have come here.
``So Jordan," I say finally. ``Why all the bare wood? You never used to be such a Spartan."
``That's Jenny's fault," he says, and leans back in his chair until he's balanced on two legs. ``She made all the cushions, and damned if she was gonna leave anything behind. I haven't had the time or money to go shopping for new ones." He takes a pull at the beer and wavers just a little, then catches himself with his left hand on the underside of the table and lowers his chair back onto all four legs.
``She take the curtains too?"
He nods. ``She stuck it to me, big brother. She really, seriously, kicked my ass."
I shake my head and tilt my own chair back until all I can see is the white plaster ceiling. ``I hate to say it, Jordan, but after what you two did to me..." I want to say he should have seen this coming, but the chair shifts slightly and my balance is gone. My beer goes flying as I pull my hands up to protect my head, and an instant later the chair and my back hit the floor with a crack and a boom like close thunder. When I roll over and sit up I see I've split the chair back completely in two.
``Bravo, brother!" Jordan pushes back from the table and stands. He's slow-clapping, and smiling with his mouth but not his eyes. He kicks the bottom of my chair aside, reaches down and pulls me to my feet. ``Mom always said you'd do that someday." The rain has stopped, and Jordan's voice almost echoes in the sudden silence. I press the heels of my hands to my eyes and shake my head, then kneel down by the broken chair back and try to force the two halves together again.
``Leave it," Jordan says. He picks up my bottle and drops it in the sink. ``You've done enough damage around here for one night. Let's go out."
The chair is hopeless anyway. I look out the kitchen window. A mist is rising and the sky is a flat, featureless black. ``Sure," I say, ``if that's what you want to do. Where?"
``This is Middleburg, remember? There's never been more than one place to go."
Tommy's Good Time Bar and Grill hasn't even changed the sawdust and peanut shells on the floor, as near as I can tell, in the six years since I was here last. The booths are still upholstered in duct tape, the beer still comes in mason jars, and Tommy Morano, Former Heavyweight Contender, still stands behind the bar, balding and graying and bigger than Asia.
The place is pretty crowded, but Jordan and I manage to get the last two stools at the bar. Jordan didn't say much on the ride into town. Now that we're here, though, he seems almost happy, waving to people he knows and humming softly. After a few minutes Jordan gets Tommy's attention and orders us a pitcher, then hands me a dollar and tells me to line up something good on the jukebox.
At first I think he's joking, because when I was in college the jukebox at Tommy's was country only, quarters only, and all forty-fives. When I wade through the crowd to the back corner where that machine used to be, though, I find a CD player with four digits worth of selections, just like they have in the places I go to up north. I feed in my dollar and punch up a song by All and another by New Order, then finish with Just Like Heaven. The song playing now is Country Roads. Tommy might as well have kept the old box.
Back at the bar, Jordan's putting a dent in the pitcher and chatting up the girl on the next stool -- a pretty blonde who couldn't be older than twenty. I pour myself a beer. Country Roads is just ending and a bunch of rednecks by the door are whooping and yipping and Jordan is leaning in close to say something to his new friend when the crowd parts just enough to let me catch Jenny's eye in a booth not more than fifteen feet away.
She looks older than when I last saw her -- at the wedding, I guess it must have been. Her hair is still thick and slick and black as melted tar, but she's wearing more makeup now, and even through it and from this far away I can see the beginnings of wrinkles at the corners of her mouth and eyes. She's wearing a flannel shirt and high black boots and sharing her booth with Brad Galloway, who was expelled from our high school the year before I graduated. Jenny smiles and waves, then pats Brad on the arm, leans across the table and speaks into his ear. I down my beer in one long pull. By the time I'm finished she's standing in front of me.
``Hey Barry," she says. ``Long time no see, huh? Where you been?"
``I've been around," I say. Jordan's still immersed in the blonde. ``I don't think now is the best time to get caught up."
Her face tightens into a scowl. ``What's Jordan care if I talk to you?"
I want to tell her to shut her mouth and go back to talking tractor pulls with Brad, but Jordan's head turns at the sound of his name, and everything that happens from that moment on is as inevitable as nightfall.
``Jenny," he says. ``What the fuck are you doing here?"
She crosses her arms and looks away. ``I'm allowed in here same as anyone else, Jordan Highsmith. I'm allowed to talk to your brother, too, so why don't you just go back to your little girlfriend there and leave us alone?"
Jordan swings around to face her. ``What makes you think my brother wants to talk to you?"
``What makes you think he don't?"
My first song is playing on the jukebox. It's called Scary Sad, and as it starts up I hear someone behind me tell Tommy to get that shit off the machine. Jenny and Jordan hate this music too, but they're going at each other too hard to notice.
I was in this same bar -- maybe sitting on this same stool -- the first time I saw them together, and I can still remember the way the room darkened and my belly twisted into a tight, hard knot. When I dredge up the memory, though, the girl I see looks and sounds and smells nothing like the woman standing in front of me.
Surprised, I let my eyes run over Jenny, from her pointy-toed feet to the top of her slicked-down head. Nothing at all. Jordan turns his back to her, and I've just about convinced myself that things might turn out all right after all when I glance over at Jenny's booth. Brad Galloway is on his feet and moving toward us. As he lumbers across the room the crowd parts before him, and I'd almost swear the floor bows under his weight.
``Hey there, Barry," he says, and at the sound of his voice Jenny's jaw snaps shut and she steps to the side. Brad stops right in front of me, runs a hand over his chin and looks me up and down. ``The prodigal son returns. That your shit on the jukebox?" I nod. He's standing close enough for me to smell his cologne and the beer he's spilled down the front of his shirt. He shakes his head and spits onto the floor between us. ``Figures. Where you been, Professor? I ain't seen you in this bar in a good long while."
Jordan and Jenny are both watching me, and I can feel my stomach start to tighten and churn. ``I live in Syracuse now," I say. ``I'm just back home for a visit."
Brad grins and crosses his arms over his chest. ``That right? Just thought you'd drop in and see how we get along without you?" I shrug and look away, and for one sickening moment I'm sixteen years old again, sullen and speechless as Brad shakes me down in the hallway.
``Well," he says. ``I’ll say one thing. The music in this bar's been a whole lot better since you left. Ain't that right, Jordan?"
I turn to my brother. His eyes are hooded and his mouth is a thin, hard line.
``That's right, Brad," he says. ``Now go fuck yourself, huh?"
Brad's hands drop to his waist and his smile widens until it looks more like he's baring his teeth.
``I've got a better idea," he says. ``How about I go home and fuck your wife?"
Brad starts to turn away, but Jordan is already on his feet and swinging. He catches Brad just behind the ear. Brad stumbles forward a step, turns and brings up his fists. He looks more surprised than angry. The crowd pulls back from the bar to make a space for the two of them. Jordan grins like a wolf at bay. Brad throws a tentative jab. Jordan steps back, dances around a wild left hook and catches Brad with a hard right to the side of the head. Brad goes down onto all fours. I glance back at Tommy. He's leaning on the bar watching, waiting to see if they break anything.
Jordan waits for Brad to get back up, then spits into the sawdust and crouches down beside him, bends over him as if to whisper in his ear. Tommy's moving forward, about to break it up, when Brad's left hand flashes up and around and Jordan lurches back in a smattering of red.
Tommy comes over the bar now with a baseball bat, but Brad's already on his feet and backing away, a bloodied Swiss army knife in his hand. “You all saw that,” he says. “Pure self defense.” Jordan is sitting on the floor in the middle of a ring of gawking yokels, wide-eyed and staring, both hands pressed to his throat.
As if freed from a spell, I drop off my stool and onto the floor beside him. There's no rattle in his breathing, but Jordan's eyes are unfocused and his shirt front is already covered in blood. I tell him I'm going to move his hands now, then pry back his fingers, one by one. Blood runs down my brother's neck and into his collar in a steady stream, but the cut is long and shallow and high up on the left side, and I'm pretty sure his arteries are sound. I peel off my sweatshirt and press it to the wound. Jenny kneels down beside me, both hands clapped to her mouth. I tell her to call a fucking ambulance and push her away. Jordan lists to one side, foundering. I pull his head to my shoulder, smooth down his hair and whisper ``Everything's all right now. I'm here, baby brother."
``I know it," he says. His mouth is almost touching my ear, but his voice is dreamy and far away. ``Christ, Barry. I've always known that."
My last song is playing. Tommy raises the lights and clears the room, and when the EMTs arrive they find me still on the floor, with Jordan cradled in my arms like some sordid Pieta. The blood flow is nearly stanched, and Jordan's eyes are open and wandering and clear as a newborn child's.
In Posse: Potentially, might be ...