(from ED WEAVER)
The three Weaver brothers were in Mr. Henderson’s boat before dawn waiting for enough light to throw the shrimp trawl out. Water rolled under the boat’s bottom and lapped the sides. The damp air tasted salty. Sky and water, dark and light with large and small ripples, glowed blue-purple pale. Fog rose like breath out of your mouth on a cold day. The few stars left faded one-by-one or in groups together.
Charles, on the middle seat facing Ed, held out the thermos bottle. “Want some coffee?” His brother, a cook in the Army, eagle tattoo on right arm and a faint pink scar above left eye from a grammar school fight, had breakfast waiting when he got downstairs. Grits, scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits.
Charles and Vivian planned on opening a restaurant in Cedar Hollow after they married. Saved every penny possible. But after Laura was born, the bank account quickly dried-up. They still struggled with doctor bills. Now that the hole in Laura’s heart was finally closing, Charles described his dream as, “Maybe someday.” Ed knew by his brother’s weary distant voice, like talking about a good friend now far away, the dream would probably be never. Every time he looked at Laura, as tiny as a china doll, pretty with black curls and long lashes, thanked God his kids weren’t born that way. I don’t understand why He punishes folks that way.
“Thanks.” There was just enough coffee left to fill the plastic cup. While he drove, Luke and Charles passed the bottle back and forth. “At least y’all saved me some.” Took a sip. Perfect like always, his inside warming like his toes out of his boots wiggling before a fire on a cold rainy day. Emma’s coffee was sometimes too weak, too strong, or bitter from perking too long, but never complained. Guess that’s part of the wedding vows. Hoped his brother’s dream came true someday, but didn’t see how. They’ll be stuck running her folk’s place forever. Another damn shame, as though there ain’t enough already. Nobody ever really knows how life will turn out to be.
Charles pushed up his hunting cap. Rubbed his chin. Another Weaver trademark—round, poked-out, deeply cleaved. Grinned. “That’s what brothers are for.” Ed imagined the chestnut eyes twinkling.
They called his brother “Charlie” as a kid, but he hated that because the kid who left the scar rhymed it was “farty”. Ed forgot the kid’s name, but his brother won the fight.
Luke, sitting up front, poked Charles in the back. “Hand me a beer.” Last week his little brother, six foot four and two hundred pounds with an over-the-belt beer gut, drove over to Elsewood, Wilson County was dry, and bought three cases of Falstaff. Carefully hid them in the back of his truck. It was three days after Luke was born, not eating and almost crying himself dry, before Doc Coffer discovered that he was tongue-tied. With a snap everything was fine. That was one of the first things checked with Ricky and Suzie after counting fingers and toes.
“That’s why my baby’s so big now,” their momma said, “he’s still trying to catch up.”
Their daddy snorted, “Once that boy learned how to suck a bottle he ain’t put it down.”
Ed shook his head back and forth. Smiled. Everybody called Luke, a “good ole boy”. Could fix any engine; usually tell the trouble just by hearing. Enjoyed good times. There were always plenty of girls, but never the “right one” with to settle down.
Emma said Luke was still young. “There’s plenty of time, not everybody’s lucky like us.”
I ain’t sure if he’s ever coming down from fool’s hill.
“This early?” Steam rose from Ed’s coffee like fog off of the water. His drinking in the morning days and all-night binges ended with “I do”. The worst he ever got was once with Fannie and a quart of shine. Just got inside her when my insides came puking out. For three days his head felt like a peanut in a tightening vise.
Luke snickered, full lips like a braying donkey’s. Charles, ice chest at feet, opened a Falstaff and passed it back. “That’s what vacations are for, to get drunk in new places!” His little brother took a long swig. Wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. It took three days for the blond stubble to show up on the baby pink face.
Charles opened another can.
Ed shook his head back and forth. Lips smacking, both hands wrapped around the cup. “It’s a good thing Momma can’t see her baby boys now.” There were things in his past he didn’t want her or Emma to ever find out. Thank God, Ricky and Suzie are too young to keep secrets. The only way to keep them safe is watching day and night. Emma said he was overprotective, worst than ten mother hens. Maybe sometimes I am, but my kids ain’t going to feel neglected by their daddy. They won’t ever have to be afraid.
Luke burped loud enough to be heard on shore.
Charles giggled and took a swig.
They drifted on the water together, the boat like a cradle. Sky faded. Grew lighter and paler. Clouds and ripples turned gold, pink, and yellow. The glow in the East, somewhere below the water, was like a train’s light around the bend.
Charles leaned forward. Thick fingers with flat nails laced together, the ends regularly trimmed in church with a pocketknife. Can held between legs. “Ida sure is going to be mad we left Joseph.” Like all of them, his oldest brother clipped off some words, stretched other, slurred s’s, rolled r’s. Hearing and speaking the same you forget to notice.
Ed shrugged. Poked out his lips. Squinted forward. “It’s his own damn fault!” The words ripped the morning.
Last night, Ida pestered him to take Joseph along. “For me please, all I ask is for him to feel he belongs.” Finally agreed. Fortunately, his jerk brother-in-law wasn’t up when they left. Sure wasn’t going to wake the whole house pounding on their bedroom door. Though most of them could probably slept through a hurricane. Luke tripped over his boots while getting dressed and shouted “Goddamn!” Ricky just yawned and rolled over. I hope he doesn’t know that word.
“Yeah, I guess so.” Charles shook his head back and forth. Stared at his feet crossed at the ankles. Circled a finger around the top of his can. “I’ve never been able to see what Ida sees in him anyway.” His brother sounded like when talking about his restaurant dream.
“He’s a Grade A bastard!” Just like Daddy, the voice shouted inside. Bit his lip, ashamed for thinking that. Drained the coffee. Screwed the cap back on the bottle. Set it at his feet. Sometimes it’s better to keep the truth a secret.
Luke’s voice came from the front. “He must be keeping Ida happy between the sheets.”
Ed grunted. Crossed his arms before him, each hand in the opposite elbow. “She just don’t know no better.”
Charles shook his head back and forth. Took another swig. Swallowed, the beer sounding like the last water in a sink gulping down. “At least we don’t haft to live with him.” Thumped his middle finger against the can like rain dripping on tin.
“Yep,” Luke said, “Sister could’ve done a hell of a lot better. Even Preston. That joker could almost chew gum and walk at the same time.”
Both of his brothers laughed.
Heaved-sighed. Stared out over the water, which was beginning to shine. Mumbled inside and out loud. “If I’d been here I would’ve stopped that wedding.”
Stared forward, not sure if Luke or Charles asked the question. Held up and out his palms. Shrugged. “I don’t know. Run him out of town.” Murder would be considered a public service with his brother-in-law. It’s okay for people who everybody agrees is really bad like Hitler to die.
Charles snorted. “Ida would’ve left with him. At least we know where she is so when he does go she’ll have family to turn to.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Luke finished. Tossed his beer can overboard. “Nothin’ we can do about it now. The bastard’s here to stay. Pass me another.”
Ed squinted at his little brother. Laced his fingers before him. Twiddled his thumbs one way then the other. “Maybe there is.” Like Charles’s restaurant dream, didn’t see how it would come true. Ignoring Joseph ain’t goin’ to make him disappear. He becomes just an unseen pain-in-the-ass.
Growing up, Ida always came to big brother with her problems. Knew he would make the wrong right. Helped with her homework. Heard her cry when she couldn’t go out. Convinced George Miller with his fists to leave her alone. It was his duty. His daddy didn’t care and his momma was too busy. I’m not going to let her ruin her life now!
Luke took a swig from his new can. Nudged Charles’s shoulder. “The real reason Ed wouldn’t let Ricky bring Danny here is so the sharks wouldn’t get too full to eat Joseph!”
They both giggled.
Chuckled. Snorted. Reached over into the ice chest for a beer. “No such good luck.”
Charles stretched his eyes, the bushy brows meeting. Shook a finger at him. “So early?”
Grinned. Punched two opposite triangles into the top of the can. “We’re on vacation.” Sorry Emma.
Luke shouted, “All right!” and the three brothers touched beers.
Three dolphin fins, one behind the other, surfaced about a hundred feet east of the boat. Curved up then down. Weaved in and out across the water.
Charles drained his beer. Crunched the can between his hands. Tossed it over the side. Grinned. “Ed, remember the January I turned fourteen? You, Wilbur and me skipped school to go swimming in Willow Creek. I nearly froze my butt off.”
Luke giggled. “Must’ve nipped the front too. Vivian says you ain’t got much.”
Charles turned. “That’s not what you said last night.” The brothers playfully fought rocking the boat.
Ed shook his head chuckling. “Okay, you two calm down.”
They stopped. The boat settled like a porch swing after getting up. Rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand. Gripped hard then letting go. Remembered. “We built a bonfire on shore. Stripped to our drawers. Jumped into the water trying to see who could stay in the longest, then ran back to get warm. Damn, it was cold! First winter I ever saw snow. Bet my teeth chattered for a month and goose bumps bigger than marbles covered my body.” Took a swig of beer, like winter following summer in his throat. Surprised how something so fun then could be so silly now. Still it was a good memory. If Ricky and Suzie ever did anything like that, I’ll skin them alive!
Charles nodded. Smiled. The bottom teeth crooked and an upper corner one gone. Shook a finger before them. “Remember when we grabbed Wilbur by his arms and legs swinging him back and forth, him screaming like a banshee, and flung him out over the water? To my dying day I’ll see him running back to the fire, water streaming down his hair, his body blue, his eyes,” he held out his arms, touched the middle finger and thumb of each hand together, “this wide mumbling, ‘I hope y’all assholes die!’” Doubled over laughing. Slapped his thighs. Reached inside the ice chest for another beer.
Ed threw back his head giggling. Felt like a kid again when anything could be funny. A fart in church brought tears to your eyes. “It’s a wonder we all didn’t die of double pneumonia! Momma was okay about it except for worrying we’d be sick, but Daddy took us to the barn and wore our butts out. I had blisters on top of goose bumps for a month. Still it was worth the whipping.” Squinted forward. Suddenly sober. Wiped his hands over his mouth. Grumbled, “Of course it wouldn’t had happened if Luke ain’t told.”
Luke’s jaw fell. Eyes stretched wide, the face draining. “But, but…” The voice strained high like before changing. His little brother drew up like a wildflower at dusk. The beer can wedged between his legs. Wiggled and squirmed like he was going to jump out of the boat.
Ed glanced at Charles. Eyes and lips squeezed tight. Set his can between his feet. Popped a fist into a palm and grinded. Then the opposite into the other. “I don’t remember if we ever paid him back.” Did his best James Cagney-Humphrey Bogart-Gary Cooper voices combined.
Luke’s head bobbed like a cork with baby fish hitting the line. Hands, the fingers spread, like windshield wipers wildly flapped before him. “Y’all did many times!’
Ed chuckled inside. Strained to keep his lips tight, his brows together. Glad it was dim light. Again his little brother was ten-years-old telling their momma he didn’t break that vase she got from Aunt Cecilia for Christmas even though the slingshot hung from his back pocket. Stared down at his fingernails, which needed cleaning. “I don’t recall,” he said slowly. Stared at Charles still facing him. His oldest brother’s body trembled like the vase before hitting the floor. “How about you?”
Charles swallowed. Made his face somber. Quickly glanced over his shoulder. “Nope.” Pressed his knees together, the beer and hands between his thighs like a kid about to pee in his pants.
Luke held out his hands palms up. Poked out his lips and jaw. “I was mad ’cause y’all wouldn’t let me go.” The words were a ten-year-old’s pout.
“You were too young.”
“Was not, I was in the fourth grade!”
“And a crybaby.”
“Was too.” Ed held up a hand. Blew on the bent fingers. Brushed them against his shoulder. Stared at his nails. “How about that time you almost cut off your thumb?” It was the only time he remembered his brother crying.
“Well, goddammit, it hurt!”
Bit his bottom lip. Closed his eyes. Again saw the blood squirting, covering Luke’s thumb, hand, elbow. Anybody would’ve done the same. Teasing always starts out fun, quickly turns ugly, gets too powerful to stop. It’s stupid, silly. Swallowed. Face flushed. Bent down. Picked up the can between his feet. “Well, you shouldn’t have been playing with the axe.” Again the words were as soft as the morning.
Luke sighed. Shrugged. Stared out over the water. “I know it was dumb, but I just wanted to do things like y’all.” His voice sounded as distant as the shore.
Charles turned toward his youngest brother.
Ed cupped the can between his hands. Took a long swig. Maybe during those years we did leave Luke out? He always wanted to tag along and I always said no. Burped. Wiped his hand over his mouth. Thought about crawling under the boat and drowning.
Luke’s head snapped forward. Shook a finger at them. “But it was also dumb skipping school and going swimming.” His voice was as strong as their momma’s that day.
Nodded. Grinned. “I know.” Ed knew his brother forgave him. “But it was fun.” Took another swig of beer. Maybe when you grow up life ain’t supposed to be fun? Just responsibilities and dreams.
Luke drained his beer. Dropped the can overboard. “Let’s go swimming.” His voice was as happy and as innocent as a ten-year-old’s.
Luke unlaced his boots. Kicked them off. “You know. Get into the water. Splash around. Have fun.” Crossed one leg over the other. Grabbed a white sock by the toe. Pulled it off. Repeated with the other. Rolled them into a ball.
Charles shook his head back and forth giggling. Pulled his cap down. Glanced over his shoulder. “You’re dumb ass crazy. We came out here to shrimp.” Took another swig.
“They ain’t going nowhere.” Luke pulled his tee shirt off overhead. The hairs on his chest fuzzy like a man’s. Dropped it over his boots. “Y’all chicken.” Stuck out his tongue. Stuck his hands under his armpits clucking.
Ed laughed at his little brother. Felt like he drunk ten beers fast. “We ain’t.”
“Cluck cluck are.”
Luke whipped off his belt. Worn leather with ordinary-sized buckle. Dropped it over his tee shirt like a snake. Unbuttoned and unzipped his blue jeans. “Then come on in.” Wiggled out of his trousers while sitting.
Ed and Charles looked at each other. Grinned like best childhood buddies sharing a secret. Tossed their cans, his half-empty, on opposite sides over the boat. Started stripping. It was like he couldn’t get naked fast enough.
Luke stood on his seat. Feet spread so the boat wouldn’t tip over. Fists overhead in a muscleman’s pose. “Last one in is a son-of-a-bitch!” Slipped off his drawers. Holey threadbare briefs, their momma would be ashamed of. Dropped his cap. Stuck out his butt. Jumped feet first into the water yelling.
Ed then Charles followed.
That morning as the sun came up, red and pink and gold over the Gulf, the three Weaver brothers played in the water.