Electromagnetic radiation is shot through the air in a coded frequency that amounts to a man’s voice, but is silent as it makes its journey across four states to the ear piece of another man’s cell phone. Such radiation may or may not have contributed to the recently discovered growth on this latter man’s pancreas. He’s heard some conflicting rumors about this, but nothing for certain. The Internet is full of rumors. It terrifies him, how confusing it gets. He thinks about this while listening to the voice from the receiver, which, though resembling that of his older brother, is, he is aware, merely a clot of subatomic particles tearing through his brain like buckshot. He grudgingly converses with it, mindful of the danger.
The sound of a man on the verge of tears is strange when interspersed with sudden fits of laughter. These outbursts, meant to belittle the other man’s comparatively pain-free life so far, briefly shift his (this other man’s) focus from thoughts of asbestos and cell phone radiation to those of napalm, flying shrapnel, and the taste of their father’s shotgun barrel. He can almost smell the whiskey over the phone line.
Staring out his kitchen window, jarred by the familiarity of it all–the lights and yards and red brick houses as static as the course of these monthly 4AM conversations (now as routine as the countless hours spent at his favorite science and medical websites each day)–he tries to imagine his brother as something more than a disembodied voice. He succeeds only in picturing the old man. “You sound just like him,” he says, and clutches the counter as if bracing for impact.
DNA is shot into the darkness as a hundred million frenzied sperm vie for the chance for replication. Organic life begins and ends according to this blueprint. A degenerate father dies of cancer before his youngest son turns six, and while his oldest attempts to smother his emotions in a burning jungle far away, having chosen the perils of Vietnam over spending one more year at home. The former, whose only memory of his father is that of a blurry silhouette, a drunken cackle and the musk of cheap bourbon, grows up resolute and distant, and remains so all the way through law school. The latter, meanwhile, plagued by memories, nightmares and addiction, spends his adult years circulating through jobs, women, and religious cults.
He fails to attend his brother’s wedding. Nor does he visit for Christmas or birthdays, or for his nephew’s graduation. He only calls, once or twice a month, sometimes for bail money, sometimes to rant about his problems–another woman, another job, another asshole ripping him off (all new details, same basic story)–and usually, in the latter case, breaking down into a tangent about “fate” and how they can’t avoid it (presumably a remnant of his former cult days) which, especially now as it has become a touchy subject, invariably results in hushed shouting and one or the other hanging up mid sentence.
The most effective form of dominance is conveniently circumstantial. A law degree is something to be envied, not respected. Most will return with a blow to the man’s character–“smug,” they’ll say, and “full of shit,” although few will say these things to his face. Confrontation, so primal and unsettling, has no place in their aseptic world. Vast are the dangers of unknown territory. Yet here they are, these dangers, in front of them, unheard in the walls around them, unseen in the food they eat, the water, the airwaves, the past.
To look back is to admit defeat. Maybe, you realize, you’re not the man you thought you were. Maybe your triumphs have been a sham. Maybe you find yourself in the place of your childhood, maybe a trailer, a room, a wisp of a man in a bed in a corner, a rotten, dying stench to match the peeling primrose wallpaper and carpet dank with dog piss. And on the dusty nightstand–partially hidden by stacks of unpaid medical bills–you maybe see a photograph of this man from another time, 20, 30 years prior, filled out, proud and handsome in full military dress. And naturally you think of your brother; a phantom recollection.
He was big then, shirtless and breathing heavy, your mother on her back on the living room floor, matted hair in a pool of chili from the spilled TV tray, helpless beneath the weight of him. And to his right the shotgun barrel, Johnny at the other end, finger on the trigger, wide-eyed. Everybody still and silent. And you, maybe three or four, watching it all like you would a movie. But the scene does not play out in your head. It remains there, fixed, a wax arrangement. Then your brother is gone, and soon the old man, and there you are, alone with your mother in that rotting trailer, the smell of death ever-present.
So you build your own world, greater than his, and you stand above it, stabilized. Vaguely aware that your fears are his fears. That knowledge can be mistaken for power. You don’t need Johnny to tell you this. You don’t need him to weaken you. You call him drunk and sad and jealous. You hang up the telephone.
A sunrise is a terrible thing. A pale sky, a gleaming smear of light in the glass. An elderly man with a jagged rake. A couple of kids with their heads down, braced against the wind. A thousand leaves like fingernails on the bricks. A ghost of a man in a window pane. A face, a street, a blinding glare.
The most effective form of survival is compromise. The most effective form of suicide is a gunshot to the brain. On a tiny planet set to be destroyed by its own sun, a conglomeration of carbon atoms, through trial and error, discovers these facts. Information such as this provides these atoms with flesh and blood, context and perspective. Life has meaning. Chaos prevails. The earth is merely a rock in space. Atop this rock stands a man looking out, his footing secure, eyes upon on the window before him. The rock is his, and he will ride it, even as it crumbles beneath him (an avalanche, a shooting star), into the inferno.
Dan Dotson has had stuff published by such websites as Thieves Jargon and Megaera. He lives in western Nebraska.