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LeCraw / THE HALF BROTHER
Mid-August. On the quad, the only sound is a far-off angry machine, a leaf blower, somewhere in the vicinity of the library. Otherwise I’d say I have the whole place to myself, except for the bees. They’re delirious in the heat, in the flowering shrubs and trees, buried headfirst, ecstatic. As I walk by a seven-foot-tall rose of Sharon I hear their intoxicated hum and realize the whole little tree is vibrating, throbbing with them.
Summer here in the North still surprises me. The heat, when it finally comes, is heavy and thorough, and must be appreciated while it lasts, which the bees know. I walk slowly up one of the diagonal paths. I could stop right here, lie down in the hot green grass; do a dance; get naked. Of course there’s sure to be someone in the quiet buildings, behind a window closed for the AC, someone who’d look down and see Charlie Garrett pulling a nutter—but if I had to lay money, this very moment, I’d bet no. I’d bet I was all alone.
Into the cloister. Or cloister-let. Ah, the Anglophile benefactors of the Abbott School! My shoes whisper against the flagstones. The air is suddenly chilled, almost wet. There are stone benches along the walls, and ahead, the heavy wood of the chapel’s side door, closed today. And, just before that door, a girl—or rather a girl’s legs, long brown legs stretched out, and I know them. Most definitely, I know them. “Miss Bankhead,” I say.
I call her that automatically, without irony, although there’s no need for formality anymore. May Bankhead is twenty now, no longer my student; I’m twenty-nine; I can be her peer. In the letters we used to write, during her first two years of college, we’d been edging toward that equality, but I haven’t heard from her in months. “Hi there!” she says. “Mr. Garrett.” Quicker than I. Of course.
“You look so cool,” I say. “You always look so cool.”
She smiles, a private smile. Otherwise she doesn’t move, but she gives the impression not of complete stillness but of an almost imperceptible undulation, as though she were an underwater plant.
“I’m ruining your solitude,” I say.
She shakes her head, dreamily. “I love it here in the summer,” she says. “I love the silence.” At that exact moment the leaf blower revs again, and we laugh, and whatever spell was on her is broken. “Aren’t you going to sit down?” May says, and scoots over a little on the bench.
I sit down and now we are spectators together, looking out at the empty green. “So you come here too?” she says. “To indulge your monkish fantasies?”
“What, do you have nun fantasies?” I say. Her incongruous dimple appears. Normally, she looks rather serious. “Well then.”
“I come here and pretend I’m a stranger. Trespassing. I lurk around.”
“Well, that’s . . . interesting.”
“It’s nice,” May says. “I’ve never been anonymous here.” May’s a fac brat, daughter of the chaplain. She’s lived here all her life.
“So you must be looking forward to Paris.”
She gives me a quick, penetrating glance. “Exactly. You knew about that?”
“I hear things.” And I wonder, for the dozenth time, if the letters dribbled away because she’s got a boyfriend. “You’re going for the whole year?”
“Yes.” She sounds proud.
“Will you come home for Christmas?”
“No, Mom’s coming over.”
“That’ll be nice.”
I almost say, You’ll be gone a long time—but she’s already gone. Her returns from college to Abbottsford, and her father and his moods and that otherwise empty house, are a slender thread to hang anything on; my disappointment is deep down, familiar, almost invisible. For the moment, it is even easy to believe that it’s the same thing I feel whenever an alum turns up without warning, a kid I was fond of but have, without meaning to, forgotten: discomfort at the reminder that my eternal present, filled with eternal teenagers, is an illusion. (Although the cycle still has some novelty. The alums don’t yet feel like ambassadors from another country, the country of my youth.)
The leaf blower whines up one last time with that ruthless insistence, corralling whatever detritus it has managed to find in August, and then stops. We are poised for its beginning again, closer to us, maybe; but a minute passes, two. The quiet gradually takes hold but we stay alert, scanning the empty quad. It’s as though we’re waiting for an exotic animal to pad into view, or an enormous bird, in a brilliant swirl of plumage. Some interruption, or prize.
“Where have you been?” she says abruptly. “I’ve been home a whole month. I thought I’d see you.”
The nauseating depth of my disappointment surprises even me. A month! Wasted! A month where she was just waiting to bump into me! “I was home,” I say. “In Atlanta. With my mother and brother.”
“What did you do?”
“Hung out. Taught him to drive.” Pretended I still live there. Assuaged my guilt.
“To drive? How old is he?”
“He just turned sixteen,” I say. “He’s my half brother.”
“Oh.” There’s a slight awkwardness at this hint of how little we know of each other—how little she knows of me. “Is he a good driver?”
“He’s awful,” I say. “He gets distracted. By things that strike him as wonderful. My brother is frequently amazed.”
“That’s sort of cute.”
“He’s sort of cute,” I say. Which is a ridiculous understatement. My half brother, Nicky, tall and auburn haired like our mother, turns heads on the street. He has a profile like a prince’s on a coin.
“You’re a good brother,” May says. “To spend all that time.”
“If I were a good brother, I’d live there. I guess.”
“But you live here,” May says, shrugging, as though I were as native to Abbottsford, Massachusetts, as a toadstool that has sprung up in the night. “People leave home.” She shrugs again. “As a matter of fact, I’m on my farewell-Abbottsford tour right now.”
That plunging stomach again. “What, you’re never coming back?”
“Who knows? I don’t know why I would,” she says. “Anyway, I’ve done the town. I’ve done school. I’ve been sitting here for an hour.” She’s suddenly languid, older. She uncrosses, recrosses her legs, and I almost expect her to lift a cigarette to her lips. “All that’s left is to go to the pond. But I’ll have to do that later. Daddy has the car.”
“I could take you,” I say.
“You have your car here?”
“Well, I didn’t walk,” I say.
“I thought you lived with the Middletons.”
Those are my old landlords, who used to own a two-family, just off campus. “They moved,” I say. “When Booker got the promotion. They live on campus now—didn’t you know? In the Averys’ old house. And I bought a house of my own. Outside town.”
“Daddy never tells me anything,” she says. “So you’re all by yourself?”
“I like it,” I say, shrugging, and this is not a lie, not at all; but as I say it I also realize that I believe my solitude will be temporary. That I’m poised on the brink of something else.
soon we’re walking down the trail to Abbott Pond. From here, we could walk to my house, which I don’t mention. I might later, when I can point through the trees in the exact direction. But I might not. May’s cheeriness has taken on a determined edge, and its meaning is clear to me: she really did want to be alone. I’ve ruined a ritual. I’m mortified that she agreed for me to come out of mere politeness.
It’s past noon now and hotter, even in the shade of the trees. Cicadas sing shrilly, up to that pitch of emergency, and stop, and start again. May is ahead of me on the path. Her hair was up in a messy knot earlier, but now it’s come down; it’s the longest I’ve ever seen it. It swings and shines. She seems to be tramping along to some rhythm.
She told me she’s traveling around Europe before school begins. I was taken to Europe by my mother and my stepfather, Hugh, when they were newly married, and I’m remembering myself there, age twelve, sensing some beckoning clarity of experience and freedom, but pretzeled by puberty, timidity, indecision. The sheer foreignness. And then replacing that boy with this May, striding forward, grabbing at the world—oh, she will burst across that chasm, away from me and my kind, and go glimmering.
I hear, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” I haven’t seen her like this, so careless and open. She’s put her arms up above her head and as she walks she taps the low-hanging whippy branches. They sway in her wake. “And miles to go before I sleep.” She’s trying to take in as much of the forest as she can.
And then we curve around to the right and there is the pond, the smooth center of it blinding in the sun.
May goes straight to the water and for a second I think she’s just going to walk right in, but she stops at the very edge. There is probably some specific plan, an agenda. She spreads her arms wide. We have no shared memories here so I can’t help, and I think once again how I’m superfluous. But I can’t just disappear. I go down and stand next to her. “Do you love it here?” I say.
“Yes.” She is busy absorbing. Then she reaches some kind of capacity and turns to me. “We used to come here for picnics,” she says, her arms dropping to her sides. “And then I’d come with my brothers and we’d go skinny-dipping. But eventually they wouldn’t let me come with them anymore. Shut out.”
Jesus H. Christ. “So is that what you came here to do?” I say.
“No.” She’s lying.
“I won’t look,” I say. “I’ll go up there”—and I point to the trees. “Far be it from me to thwart this important rite.”
She looks at me, excited, half-convinced. “You really won’t look? You don’t mind?”
I raise my hand. “Scout’s honor.”
“Or . . . you could come too,” she says. Her face is as unseductive as a child’s. “It’s really fun.”
I smile with the most avuncular expression I can muster. “No, no. I’ll be right up there.”
I go up the bank to the edge of the woods and, true to my word, sit down with my back to the pond. I imagine I can feel her hesitation behind me, and then her undressing—the whisper of cloth against skin—and also her periodic looks at me, checking. Then I really do hear her, footsteps slushing along in shallow water, and then a splash. “Aaaah!” she cries. “Oh my God it’s amazing! Don’t you want to come in? Oh!” Another enormous splash. She must be flinging herself, full-length, into the water. Silence: she’s sliding along, slick as a fish. All that water, touching all of her body.
“Charlie! It’s okay! Really!”
I think she means I can turn around, so I do.
Her clothes are in a little pile at the shore. It’s true, she’s too far away for me to see anything. She’s swimming out to the middle of the pond. Her stroke is the elegant product of years of summer camp. I think she might go all the way to the other side, but no, she gets to the center and turns around. Without thinking about it, I take a step backward, but she keeps coming in, closer and closer, until she can stand, the water up to her shoulders, and then stops and waves. I wave back. She slides under, springs up, and then begins to cavort, to gambol, twirling in a circle and scudding water up with her cupped palms, flipping forward and backward. Her splashes screen her and I try not to look for details but once I see her breasts and then her buttocks, flashes of roundness, nothing more, white where the rest of her is tan. She dives, surfaces, dives again, sharp ankles and pointed toes. Dark head sleek as a seal’s.
Needless to say I am hard as a rock. Sitting there in the shadows.
I did not consider her invitation to join her for one millisecond, and thank God. Besides. My white, flabby self. My completely unsuitable self. She is great armfuls of girl and even if I caught her I surely couldn’t hold her.
Her splashes subside. She dives again, surfaces with only her head showing. I can see ripples where she’s treading water. “Okay,” she calls. “Getting out now,” and I turn back around.
I’m still sitting. It won’t take long for her to get dressed. I am scrounging for every boner-deflating picture I’ve got, a trick I haven’t had to pull off in years, by the way. I think of the time I threw up in the junior-high cafeteria right across from Annie Stanton. Of enormous hairy nonagenarians with bad breath. Coffins. I even try to summon Hugh, my stepfather, when he was near the end, an image I avoid because it always breaks my heart, but it’s like his very ghost is against me and the memory won’t come, no grief or pathos, nothing . . . and there’s John Thomas stiff as a soldier. Goddamn you David Herbert! Flowers winding in the mound of Venus—no!
“I’m ready,” she sings. “All decent.”
I stand up, creakily, but I don’t turn around.
“The water was glorious! You should have come in!” Taunting me. I put my hands in my pockets and try to adjust. Desperate measures. Ineffective. “Charlie?” Her voice is coming closer. “Charlie?” I hear her swagger dissipating. “Is something wrong?”
I make my last calculations, whirl around, grab her face between my two hands, and say, “Don’t you ever do that again.”
For a moment her eyes are wide; but she can’t look down and that’s the main thing. “What?” she says. “Take off my clothes? Swim?” She tosses her head a little in my grasp. “Why do you care?”
And I kiss her, hard. I didn’t even realize I was planning it. I am brilliant! Of all the diversionary tactics! I’m bending forward from the waist; she can’t get anywhere near my groin. It’s ridiculously awkward and so I pour everything I can into the kiss, making her mouth and mine the only real estate that counts. She’s startled at first and then she begins to loosen and warm. I have to keep my hands on her face as ballast but I am beginning to lose myself too. May-May it’s you. It’s you. I’ve woven my hands into her hair and under my fingertips I feel her humming and growing, feel the fact of her, and I know I could give up, step forward, admit myself, she’ll feel it all—but, no, she’s twenty years old, headed off to some Paris quai, some slick new life and so I will myself to stay rough. I fight her tongue with mine. Our teeth knock together. It’s all strategy. A battle. This is war.
But she doesn’t seem to realize. Her hands are cradling my face now too. “Mr. Garrett,” she murmurs. “Charlie Garrett,” and I gentle, I’m softer than I meant to be, this could go on forever, and I pull away and stalk back down the trail.
I realize that, aside from my greeting back in the cloister, I haven’t said her name at all, in any form.
I’ve put myself into a kind of shock but I’m also listening for her, and soon I hear her behind me, no more the jolly tramping. I consider stopping and waiting for her; I slow down, but she stays well behind me. Shame begins to seep in. Also, terror. I’ve declared myself, finally, but maybe she doesn’t even know. Maybe she just thinks I’m a monster. The upside—or not: my erection is thoroughly gone.
We reach the trailhead. My car is the only one in the little unpaved lot. I start toward it and then I realize she’s not following me anymore, and when I turn around I see her, a few yards from the end of the path, still definitively in the woods.
Her face is uncertain, but also stubborn. There’s a brief standoff. I feel now that I’m only error and all I can do is compound it. Then, from these twenty paces, I see her sigh, and she puts her hands on her hips, and that’s that. I walk back to her. “I’m sorry,” I say.
I kiss her again. It’s a proper, medium-length, generic kiss that doesn’t say much. She knows it, and steps away before I do.
Then we get in the car and I drive her back to her house, and the whole way we don’t say a word. I pull up at her front walk but leave the car running. There’s a silence and I wonder if she knows I am just taking in her warmth, her smell, the way she fills the space next to me. Then she’s reaching for the door handle. I want to stop her, but I don’t.
She gets out and slams the door, not too hard. Then she leans down to the open window. She rests her folded arms on the frame. Settles in. Won’t let my eyes go. I can see the rings of near-black around the dark blue of her irises. Her lashes are still wet, clumped into tiny points. She considers me one more moment, then gives me an enormous smile, like I’ve just spoken aloud, and she’s gone.