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Chapter 1
Buford's Big Bad Breakthrough

Chapter 1.A

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Somebody was in the middle of a class presentation when I got a call. Mother's voice shook at the other end. Within a matter of hours I was on a plane to Salt Lake City with a duffel bag.

The plane ride was short, first ascending through the blue skies above the cloud cover then floating along a strange horizon. The sun formed an iridescent glow atop the clouds. While I sat for the first time next to an empty seat, I tried to read the book I brought but couldn't concentrate. I opened and closed the ash tray on the armrest next to me. I lifted it until I could feel the spring tighten, then let go. It clacked shut. Then again. The third or fourth time the person in the seat in front of me turned around. I put my finger on the lid and looked out the window.

A stewardess pushed a cart by and offered me a snack. One of those small bags of party mix with salted pretzels and dried bread and cereal squares. I watched it in my hand when the woman handed it to me and opened it slowly. I ate it slowly. The plane eventually started to fall back through the clouds. The sky was brown and what trees were around were barren. Spring was late in coming.

Brandon met me at the terminal with uncle Matt. I hugged Matt, then Brandon. But he didn't let go. He forced me to feel and the leather smell of his jacket and a tasteful cologne became more obvious. My chest burned. I gripped his shoulder and patted his back until he released me.

We walked through the terminal and crowds of class ski trips and people returning from business meetings or vacations or funerals. Outside, we stepped into a big truck. It was maroon with a tan leather interior. A newer model that I found out later was paid for.

Chapter 1.B

We drove through more traffic than what I was used to and I sat mute until we got to the old man's apartment. We parked in his old parking spot. The walk up the stairs was shorter than I remember it, and the black porcelain cat one of the neighbors had climbing up the balcony was gone. Its sheen and gaudiness were hard to miss, but that stasis cat was the first indication that things were changing. Determining whether that change was to be good or not was waiting for me on the other side of the door.

The buzzer was the same, a simple wire leading up from the push-button just shy of the brown metal door that was so cold to stand up against in the winters when waiting for mom. It was still cold. I touched the button, but Matt said it's unlocked.

We stepped inside and most of the faces were familiar. Aunts, uncles, cousins. Mom. But booming a story at the head of the kitchen table was a dead man. No. But it looked just like one. His face was so similar, his hair, voice and mannerisms so claimed, a walking doppleganger of the head of the household. Mom saw me and came to give hugs. Come on, I want you to meet somebody, she said. I followed as she approached the man and introduced him with an open hand. This is Uncle Rich, she said. This is Grampa's brother. He stood up and held out a hand for a dead one.

Chapter 1.C
 

I took it and watched him. They were cooking something in the kitchen with his silverware, his pots, his blender that made bannana-orange juice smoothies that would put hair on our chests, he used to say. Drink up, you little heathens.

Uncle Rich went back to his story and people went about what they were doing. I noticed a picture on the wall that I'd only seen here. Somebody showed it in class before I left and it looked familiar but I didnt know why. The Dali print was a breadbasket and some rolls set aside. Below it was a silver tea set with an eagle crest on the main pot, which had a long, pointed spout and was never used. Brandon pulled a set of iron spurs from on top of a nearby bookshelf. He had to stand on his tiptoes and he cradled them in his hands, one in each.

I went outside to the balcony, past people sitting in his furniture, watching his tv, his cable. Standing there, I mapped out the place; the pool across the way where he taught Erik and I to swim; the pool tables we went to for a break through the apartments there; the alley Brandon convinced us was filled with witches and ghouls when waiting for mom in the car. Down below, where the last time we were all together a winter years ago with Matt's family from Hawaii who had never seen snow and his wife didn't like it. Wetness covers the asphalt below from last night's rain and the cloud cover makes the place flourescent.

Matt joined me on the balcony. You okay, he asked and I said yeah. He lit a cigarette and I dont remember him smoking before. You remember the last time we were all together down there and we took a picture he asked. Yeah I was just thinking about that. It started to rain. I clenched my coat, realizing I hadnt taken it off yet and we sit quietly watching it come down.

Chapter 1.D
 

A few minutes later uncle Clayton came out and told Matt to put out the cigarette or it would kill him. Matt shook his head. Clayton snuck from behind taking the cigarette from his relaxed hand and flicked it over the balcony. Damnit, Claton, Matt said, then lit up another one, why can't you just let things be. Clayton always got on Grampa's nerves because he imposed so much authority on his two daughters and his wife. And Clayton always sat in Grampa's favorite chair. Marrying into the family didn't necessarily mean becoming a part of it in his case. He had a way of bringing up small talk at the worst times and everybody but Grampa just agreed that he was right to stop the conversation short.

Man, this weather just sucks, he said. It's too bad we couldn't get some sun and get rid of all this rain. No, I thought. The rain was for us, not against us. Like an industrial-strength washing-machine for each one left behind. It's too late to get that red sock out of the whites but at least we can all share in the diluted colors. Yes, diluted. Clayton started talking to Matt and I stopped paying attention. I only heard the tatter of raindrops on the steel carports and shush of rain everywhere else. A different kind of tear.

The sky began to give me a headache and I went back inside to get a drink. Two of my aunts were washing dishes in the kitchen and a new set of kin that came in while I was outside started frying eggs. I looked around, but saw nobody to ask for a cup so I opened the cupboard where they always used to be and pulled one down. I looked at it in my hand, then put it back. Brandon grabbed me by the shoulder and talked close to me, as if we were about to make a drug deal. If you're ready we can go see the body. Yeah, I got to get out of here. Me too.

Chapter 1.E

We drove on to the funeral parlor through the rain in a big white van without windows that Brandon borrowed from work and stopped for gas at a 7-11. The pump had a color screen on it with a local news station and a fake weather reporter blurting out this and that. The screen was muted but the pictures showed things would continue like this for the next few days.

Brandon told me about his work and how they made him take time off because he couldnt keep himself together. This isn't fucking right he says to me, he wasn't supposed to die. The doctors said he was recovering fine from a quadruple bypass heart surgery. Uncle Matt had flown in from Hawaii to watch over him while he recovered, cook for him and keep the house clean, make sure he moved around every once in a while and help him back to his room when he was tired. The doctors said he was doing fine. They changed his prescription to modify the thickness of his blood. Two days later he didn't wake up for breakfast.

Brandon said take as much time as you need I don't need to be anywhere and I went behind a curtain where he was laying on an elevated cart like a hospital bed, only without all the tubes. A single blue cloth covered his body, which seemed full, hearty, healthy. Directly across from him was a couch, poised as if he were some mistaken replacement for an entertainment center.

He seemed to just be sleeping but I put a hand on his belly and it was hard. I had nothing to say and the room felt empty. I wondered why I wasn't crying for this corpse and I walked over to a mirror, the only decoration in the room aside from a vase of silk flowers next to me.

Chapter 1.F

There was a small wooden table that wasn't much wider than the mirror above and I leaned on it with both hands to look at the glass. I looked wondering if the man was in me. If he was even here at all and I saw my eyes were brown. The soft lighting made them fade away to a near-tan hue. I kept looking, though, past my reflection into the black, past another reflection and I saw him looking back. My eyes started to turn red and I looked away to see Brandon looking in on me from the other side of the curtain. I said hey and he came in and put his hand on Grampa's forehead and brushed his hair back. He said nothing and exhaled. Then he cursed and went to sit on the couch. He dropped his elbows to his knees and put his hands like a steeple to his mouth and lifted his brow to keep his eyes open.

He shouldn't be there, Brandon says, not yet. He was more mad than upset and he cursed and opened his hands to cradle his face and let his head drop, his fingers sifting through his dark hair. Yeah, I say. We were supposed to ride, we were going to ride when I got the MotoGuzzi up and running, we were supposed to ride, we were supposed to ride, he says. I said nothing and we sat there watching him for minutes, unmoving, inanimate.

He said well, we should probably get going. I have to pick up Erik from the airport in a bit but I want to get something to eat first, have you eaten anything he asked. I said I could eat, remembering how all I'd had was a piece of bread this morning and the plane snacks.

Chapter 1.G

We stepped up in the van and clacked its heavy doors at the same time. Brandon's didn't shut all the way so he had to reopen it and close it again. Goddamn piece of shit, he says and the van shakes slightly from the impact. I look down at the passenger mirror and my eyes were dark brown again.

We pass through light after light and globules of old snow covered in muck lie here and there along the roadside and they're like a series of leeches at random intervals. We stop and go, and stop and go and Brandon says we're almost there. Say something, man you're freaking me out. I looked at him and shrugged and said I don't know what to say. I'm still taking it all in. Yeah, me too. What do you think about mom, eh, he says. They're all like a bunch of goddamn pillagers in his apartment he says, I can't believe it. I just can't believe it. I said yeah, but she's in a tough spot and think if you were her and she were dead. Yeah I guess, he says, but still. Jesus. He was doing fine. They said he was doing fine.

A few more city blocks and we pulled over to the side of a road where a triplex with a for rent sign in the front yard was guarded by a waist-high iron gate. The house was light blue with a dark trim and some of the paint near the bottom was peeling up to the sky revealing bonelike wooden panels that were beginning to rot and mold.

Inside it had wood-panel flooring that squeaked under my wet soles. My room's upstairs. You can put your things up there, says Brandon, pointing up a narrow unlit hallway before disappearing into a livingroom, a kitchen, a corner.

I took my duffel bag upstairs and set it down near the top of the stairwell.

Chapter 1.H

Brandon's room was across the hall and I stepped inside and flicked on the light. A crate of records at my feet was the only organization in the place with clothes, shoes, dishes, chords and bills strewn everywhere. A door opened and closed downstairs and Brandon called me down. I let the room go back to sleep and went down to meet him. He was standing in the kitchen and said this is the kitchen. Over there is my roommate's roomoff limits, you just came through the living room. Anything you want to eat go ahead, but theres not much. He asked if I wanted to order pizza and I said sure and gave him the last ten bucks that I had left from my week's wages.

His roommate got off of work and had come home with a half rack in each hand as I was handing him the money. He shut the door with his foot behind him and asked if Brandon had to work. He said no they won't let me come back for at least a week. Good, because you're getting drunk tonight. Brandon said no, no, my brother's are here tonight and they'll be staying for a few days. So, he said, they can get drunk too. I'm sure they need it just as bad as you do.

He clunked the half racks on the countertop and tore one open, loosening the top of the bottle with practiced skill and chucking it to a wastebasket across the kitchen. He missed and watched it bounced off the rim, then gave a grunt of protest. He found another bottle in the box and opened it and sent the cap flying through the air again and it fell into the basket with ease, then took the beer to my brother.

Chapter 1.I

Brandon took a swig and offered one to me. I said sure, I guess, and took one of the bottles. I opened it with an ease that surprised me and my brother asked when I started drinking. New years, I said, and he asked his roommate if they had anything else and started going through the cupboards. He pulled a bottle of Captain Morgan's spiced rum from the cabinet and asked if they had any pop in the house. His roommate said no and he took out a small silver cell phone that flipped open and held I to his ear. Hey, what're you doing he says. I look at brandon and he's watching the bottle of rum, staring at something in front of it but not quite looking past it. His roommate tells whoever on the other end of the phone to bring some coke bso they could make rum and coke.

Brandon asked for the phone and dialed the number on a refrigerator magnet and ordered a pizza. A fer mnutes later a knock came to the door and a busty blonde woman was standing on the other side. She held up two two-liters of coke and a paper bag with a bottle in it that turned out to be peppermint schnapps. I watched her saunter through the kitchen as if her hips were meant to destroy things or be used to rearrange furniture and she called out Brandon's name. He said hey, sista, and introduced me as his big little brother. She held out a small hand to be shaken and I took it.

Brandon's roommate took her things and hauled them into the kitchen and set them down on the table with the other beer and the rum. He told me to finish my beer so I could have the drink of the house so I did.

Chapter 1.J

Back at the house I find my drink at the coffee table in front of the couch in the living room. I take a seat as Erik follows Brandon into the kitchen and picks up the bottle of Captain Morgans and holds it in both hands. He lifts it slightly and asks if he can have some and Brandon trades him a glass for the bottle. He pours some in and the gold liquid crests inside the cup as if licking its base and being hugged in return. He stops after pouring about an inch and tells him to fill it with coke. Erik guffaws and says come on, and Brandon says no so he shrugs and drinks from the glass. He didn't snuff like I did at the taste and I knew hed seen more of the college life states away than I had at home.

After introducing himself to the others in the room he comes to sit by me. Brandon gets caught-up in some drama with the woman and we watch and wait. We've got pizza coming in a few, I say and he nods like a bobble head doll while lifting the drink to his lips. He takes a sip and purses his lips, then hits my knee with the back of his hand. So what you been up to he asks. School. Work. I'm going to a funeral in a couple days. He nods and looks ahead for another drink and says me too. How's school treating you I ask and he goes into detail about the who, what and how much of his drinking sprees between tests and pot and scrounging for food. He starts laughing into his drink and asks if I want to hear one of the jokes a guy he knows told him. Sure, I say. What's grosser than a pile of dead babies he asks. I said I don't know if I want to hear this and he says the live one trying to eat his way out. He laughs and I can't help but to laugh with him, if only for the sake of laughing. He starts to tell another one, but the pizza comes and I jump to answer the door.

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Chapter 1.K

The night blurs on and I wake up in a chair upstairs and Erik is laying down next to me. I get the book out of my duffel bag that I tried to read before but I can't make sense of the words. I look back at the light coming in through a window behind me and notice the paint on the sill is cracking just as the paint outside is. I notice my mouth is pasty and it looks like I dribbled something down my shirt last night, but I don't bother to smell it to find out what.

A few minutes later Brandon walks in with a CD book and sets it on the floor next to a small radio. He leans over to see if Erik is sleeping and gives me a nod before heading into the kitchen for a glass of water. He comes back in and crouches by the CD player and carefully lifts a CD from the case with his pinky and presses the lid to the player shut. I can tell its Pink Floyd by ambient tones that build slowly to a trumpet. It sounds like the end of a Western. He sits for a moment and gets up, stepping over Erik to the kitchen again and I hear clicks and sifting grains as he prepares a pot of coffee.

The smell creeps through the room as the music builds and Erik rolls over to look around and his eyes shut again while Brandon starts to rinse some dishes. He stops after not too long and walks to where the rooms split with a handtowel wiping away the water. I notice for the first time a trail of dark hair crawling from a vague belly button over his breastplate where it fans out like windblown snow snakes over pavement. I'm not in the mood to do dishes, he says and I don't have . I nod and we spend the next hour listening to the music while Erik sleeps.

Chapter 1.L

Just before noon Erik groans awake and asks what time it is. I look at the watch grandpa sent me for Christmas just months before and tell him. Get up says Brandon, we need to get stuff to eat unless you want Ramen. He says hell no and does a push-up before falling back down into his pillow and holding it close and I watch as his shoulders relax and his eyes droop to a close. Brandon kicks him slightly and says to go take a shower and kneels again at the CD player to skip a song on the CD that has the pops and crackles from a record in the background as an acoustic solo. When the line comes, Wish you were here, Brandon goes into his bedroom. A few minutes later he's dressed and comes out putting in his belt and fastening a Leatherman to the back.

Erik goes around him to take a shower and when we leave for Grampa's he's still bleary-eyed. Once at the apartment Erik shies away from the door but reaches for the doorbell. It's probably open, I say and he reaches for the brass doorknob instead. The house smells of eggs and bacon and Matt's wife is walking to the table with a bowl of grapes. As mom gets Erik's attention and tells him she wants him to meet somebody I walk back through the hallway that I remember being so much wider to his room, his office, the bathroom. I turn the lights on and off again and Matt laughs behind me. That's usually the way those things work, he says and I say oh, I was just and I stopped talking before I finished the thought. He says its okay, I was just messing with you. Lighten up. He walks away and I look in the old mans hall closet where he never let us look. There was a coffee cup with a half dozen tobacco pipes and I took one out to smell one. Mom walks up to me with a pen and a pad and asks if theres anything I want to take home with me and I put the pipe back and point to it. One of those, I guess. Maybe a pen.

Chapter 1.M

She writes it down and gives me a hug and turns away looking at the notes she made. In the second I watch her turn the corner I see her face is drawn and weary with the shadow of tears left behind under her eyes. I close the closet door slowly with a finger and watch Clayton's daughters in the office opposite me playing solitaire on his computer. One is bugging the other for a turn so she can check her e-mail and the other tells her to go make sure no one is on the phone. I walk back down the hallway and Brandon is sitting in Grampa's chair next to Uncle Rich. He's telling a story about one of his adventures in South Africa and I listen in. He was talking and his talk was mesmerizing but he wasn't really saying anything. Brandon was tuned in, too and Uncle Rich's voice boomed when the climax of the story came and tapered off into a tone so much like Grampa's as if saying what a dumb ass he/she/it/they are with only inflection and volume and pitch. Brandon laughs and Rich keeps going.

That night we drink more and it feels good. Brandon says with Uncle Rich here it's not so bad. It's almost therapeutic. Then he says what am I saying his fucking funeral is tomorrow and he starts crying and his roommate offers a shoulder and they stand in the hallway to his bedroom while Brandon tries to stop tears with a beer bottle in hand. But they don't stop into the night and the calls for more beer keep me from letting the alcohol put me to sleep.

I wake up alone again. But I know where I am. Erik got the chair and I wonder how he could have been so comfortable on the floor as I rub a sore spot on my hip.

Chapter 1.N

We play a video game where we blow up worms to pass the time in the morning because none of us want to go to the apartment again. We eat macaroni from a pot Brandon wiped down with a paper towel and I shower for the first time since the flight in.

The linoleum is cold and my breath has a faint steam to it. I check the window but it is closed all the way and turn the faucet on full-hot. It takes a while to heat up and I look in the mirror while waiting. My eyes are slightly reddened, either from the late night or tears in my sleep. The soap has bits of rock and shells in it and doesn't lather well but smells good. Soon after I shave to a steamy mirror and Brandon shaves with me. He has a pair of slacks on and I don't remember the last time I saw him in slacks. I ask him and he says probably high school graduation almost 10 years ago and that was because Mom made me.

People start to trickle in the small room and the man at the front desk smiles at me. I look away and in a few minutes Dad's mother walks in with my aunt. She walks over for hugs and asks how I'm doing. I say fine and she asks why I haven't been writing, did I get the letters she's been sending. I say yeah and she apologizes for Grampa. I tell her about her ex-husband's condition in Seattle but she says nothing as someone takes the microphone at the front of the room. I take a seat next to her and I leave half way through to cry on my brother's lap.

When the eulogies are over by his brother and a few of his children we all go our separate ways. Brandon and I are about to leave with Erik when someone pulls us into the room for pictures and none of us smile.

Chapter 1.O

The next I tap Erik awake to say goodbye and he went back to sleep after a groan and I patted him on the shoulder. Matt was waiting for Brandon and me downstairs and drove us to the apartment. Brandon struts in and sits in Grampa's old chair and gets wrapped up in another one of Uncle Rich's stories while mom walks up to me pulls me aside. She hands me one of the pipes wrapped in a tobacco pouch that smells like vanilla and chocolate and mint. It was his blend and he died with it. She said one of my aunts didn't want the same pipe I did, so she was able to save it for me. She hands me one of his silver pens and says here you go and gives me a hug.

She asks if I'm okay and I say yeah, are you. I'm hanging in there, she says. She scratches her eyes, more weathered now than yesterday and the day before, and she says she doesn't think she can take much more of this. I hold the pipe and twist it in my fingers and smell it again. I wrap it in the leather pouch slowly and kneel to unzip my duffel bag and put it neatly inside. I put the pen in my pocket and stand up saying well, at least the worst part's over. She starts to cry and I wrap her up in my arms. I say the worst part's over and she sobs into my shoulder.

I lean back to tell her I need to make the rounds and say goodbye to everybody. She says okay and goes back to her seat at the table where her notepad was strewn across a pile of paperwork that looked like bills and bank statements and handwritten notes. I walk over to Brandon and put a hand on his shoulder. He startles and looks back at me and says Jesus, man, don't do that and exhales. I'm going to make the rounds, so be ready to go in the next few minutes, alright. He tells me he's going to stay and help out so Matt will take me to the terminal.

Chapter 1.P

I walk over to the kitchen and stop by the two aunts who were starting to cook and wave goodbye. Matt's wife stops what she's doing to wipe her hands on a towel she's looped through her belt and opens her arms for a hug. She says good bye and asks what I've been up to lately. I say school and work and she wants to know where I'm working. The other aunt listens in and says well, goodbye and opens up for a hug. Sorry we didn't get to spend more time together she says and I say yeah. Maybe another time. Uncle Rich made his way to the table where he sits with Uncle Clayton and Uncle Matt and mom. He stands for a handshake and pulls me closer for a hug. My chest begins to burn like before and he tells me to keep the lions in line back home. I say okay and he sits back down. Uncle Clayton stands next to offer a hand and says I should keep in touch so I can come skiing with the girls some time. I tell him I don't ski and he says I can be taught. I smile and say good bye.

The living room is full of people watching TV and the don't notice as I go by and down the hall to the old man's office where the girls are playing solitaire. They don't notice me come in until I say goodbye and they wave at me. One turns the swivel chair away from the computer and comes to give me a hug. The phone rings and she says have a safe trip. I turn around and peek inside the closet once more, noticing the penny inside the finger hole that I got in trouble for getting stuck in there as a child. I close the door as I hear mom almost yell what to nobody in the room. She says oh my god and starts to cry when she asks through tears and says oh my god, Johnny, I'm so sorry.

Chapter 1.Q

My cousin peeks out of the office door down the hall and I look with her as Uncle Matt approaches me and says my dad's on the phone. I clench my teeth and can feel my jaw muscles move and pulse with the pressure. I walk into the kitchen where Brandon is holding mom while she cries. I pick up the receiver and say hey, Dad. Hey, bud he says over a static line. He tells me his father died early this morning in a veteran's hospital in Seattle. He had been watching over his father and wasn't able to come down with me to this funeral. I looked at mom and she broke loose to hug me and she cried into the receiver. I moved it to the other side and patted her on the back. Are you okay I asked and he said yeah, having known time was against his father weeks ago. He exhaled and it sounded like a hiss over the static. I said well, I'll be heading out here in a bit, so Ill be at the airport there in a few hours. He said alright, bud let me talk to your mother again I said alright and handed her the phone.

I took a glass from the cupboard nearby and felt eyes on me a I walked to the sink and my aunt backed out of the way while I filled it up. I turned and leaned my butt against the counter listening to mom and looking at the linoleum wishing I had a drink. Mom said okay I'll call you later tonight, yeah, I'm okay. Alright. Good bye. Mom hung up the phone slowly and walked over to me for a hug. Matt put a hand on Brandons shoulder and I patted her back. Are you going to be okay, ma, I asked and she sniffed and nodded in my shoulder.

Chapter 1.R

I patted her again and she loosened her grasp. My hands slipped into my coat pockets and I walked to the living room. The TV was now muted and I noticed the whole house was silent. I could hear my footsteps on the carpet and my cousins came out and leaned against the wall. I felt them watching as I walked around to the different people in the living room to say good bye.

Uncle Rich's wife sat quietly near the TV with her back to it and stood with open arms as I came near. She looked young and wore turquoise earrings that weren't gaudy and a similar colored silk hair tie reining in flows of silver hair. She held me close and I said it was nice to meet you. I let loose of her but she held on. I could feel my chest burn somewhat and I patted her on the back. I tried to pull away and she pulled me closer. She kissed my cheek, this woman I'd only met the other day, and put a hand to my head so I wouldn't pull away.

You're so brave, she said in my ear and the burn in my chest erupted with a cough and I couldn't speak over sobs as I walked out while Matt held the door.

I'd wiped my face dry by the time we reached the pickup and threw my duffel in the passenger seat next to me. Matt waited before starting the car and asked if I was alright. I said yeah and he said he wouldn't tell anybody if I cried. I said thanks but made no noise while my cheeks began to drip. I sat alone on the plane back home and leaned my head against the window to watch the wing shake when it fought with the clouds.

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EDITED VERSION:

 

Somebody was in the middle of a class presentation when I got a call. Mother's voice shook at the other end. Within a matter of hours I was on a plane to Salt Lake City with a duffel bag.

The plane ride was short, first ascending through the blue skies above the cloud cover then floating along a strange horizon. The sun formed an iridescent glow atop the clouds. While I sat for the first time next to an empty seat, I tried to read the book I brought but couldn't concentrate. I opened and closed the ash tray on the armrest next to me. I lifted it until I could feel the spring tighten, then let go. It clacked shut. Then again. The third or fourth time the person in the seat in front of me turned around. I put my finger on the lid and looked out the window.

A stewardess pushed a cart by and offered me a snack. It was a small bag of party mix with salted pretzels and dried bread and cereal squares. I watched it in my hand when the woman gave it to me and opened it slowly. I ate it slowly. The plane eventually started to fall back through the clouds. The sky was brown and what trees were around were barren. Spring was late in coming.

Brandon met me at the terminal with uncle Matt. I hugged Matt, then Brandon. But he didn't let go. He forced me to feel and the leather scent of his jacket and a tasteful cologne became more obvious. My chest burned. I gripped his shoulder and patted his back until he released me.

We walked through the terminal and crowds of class ski trips and people returning from business meetings or vacations or funerals. Outside, we stepped into a big truck. It was maroon with a tan leather interior, a newer model that I found out later was paid for.

We drove through more traffic than what I was used to and I sat mute until we got to the old man's apartment. We parked in his old parking spot. The walk up the stairs was shorter than I remember it, and the black porcelain cat one of the neighbors had climbing up the balcony was gone. Its sheen and gaudiness were hard to miss, but that stasis cat was the first indication that things were changing. Determining whether that change was to be good or not was waiting for me on the other side of the door.

The buzzer was the same, a simple wire leading up from the dimly-lit faded yellow plastic push-button just shy of the brown metal door that I remember being so cold to stand up against in the winters when waiting for Mom. It was still cold. I touched the button, but Matt said it's unlocked.

We stepped inside and most of the faces were familiar. Aunts, uncles, cousins. Mom. But booming a story at the head of the kitchen table was a dead man. No. But it looked just like one. His face was so similar, his hair, voice and mannerisms so claimed, a walking doppleganger of the head of the household. Mom saw me and came to give hugs.

"Come on, I want you to meet somebody," she said. I followed as she approached the man and introduced him with an open hand. "This is Uncle Rich. This is Dads brother."

He stood up and held out a hand for a dead one. I took it and watched him. Around the corner they were cooking something in the kitchen with his silverware, his pots, his blender that made bannana-orange juice smoothies that he said would put hair on our chests. Wed say eww and hed yell drink up, you little heathens.

Uncle Rich went back to his story and people went about what they were doing. I noticed a picture on the wall that I'd only seen here. Somebody showed it in class before I left and it looked familiar but I didnt know why. The Dali print was a breadbasket and some rolls set aside. Below it was a silver tea set with an eagle crest on the main pot, which had a long, pointed spout and was never used. Brandon pulled a set of iron spurs from on top of a nearby bookshelf. He had to stand on his tiptoes and he cradled them in his hands, one in each.

I went outside to the balcony, past people sitting in his furniture, watching his TV, his cable. Standing there, I mapped out the place; the pool across the way where he taught Erik and I to swim; the pool tables we went to for a break through the apartments there; the alley Brandon convinced us was filled with witches and ghouls when waiting for mom in the car. Down below in the grass, where the last time we were all together a winter years ago with Matt's family from Hawaii who had never seen snow and his wife didn't like it. Wetness covers the asphalt below from last night's rain and the cloud cover I fell through just minutes before makes the place flourescent. The glass door behind me slid open as Matt joined me on the balcony.

"You okay?" he asked and I said yeah. He lit a cigarette and I dont remember him smoking before. "You remember the last time we were all together down there and we took a picture?"

"Yeah I was just thinking about that." It started to rain. I clenched my coat, realizing I hadnt taken it off yet and we sit quietly watching it come down.

A few minutes later Uncle Clayton came out and told Matt to put out the cigarette or it would kill him. Matt shook his head. Clayton snuck from behind taking the cigarette from his relaxed hand and flicked it over the balcony.

"Damnit, Claton," Matt said while lighting up another one, "why can't you just let things be?"

Clayton always sat in Grampa's favorite chair. From there, hed boss around my aunt and cousins until Grampa lifted him by his shirt collar out of the chair to sit down. Marrying into the family didn't necessarily mean becoming a part of it in his case. He had a way of bringing up small talk at the worst times and everybody but Grampa just agreed that he was right to stop the conversation short.

"Man, this weather just sucks," he said. "It's too bad we couldn't get some sun and get rid of all this rain." No, I thought. The rain was for us, not against us. Like an industrial-strength washing-machine for each one left behind. It's too late to get that red sock out of the whites but at least we can all share the diluted colors. Clayton started talking to Matt and I stopped paying attention. I only heard the tatter of raindrops on the steel carports and shush of rain everywhere else. A different kind of tear.

The sky began to give me a headache and I went back inside to get a drink. Two of my aunts were washing dishes in the kitchen and a new set of kin that came in while I was outside started frying eggs. I looked around, but saw nobody to ask for a cup so I opened the cupboard where they always used to be and pulled one down. I looked at it in my hand, then put it back. Brandon grabbed me by the shoulder and talked close to me, as if we were about to make a drug deal.

"If you're ready we can go see the body."

"Yeah, I got to get out of here."

"Me too, man. Me too."

We drove on to the funeral parlor through the rain in a big white van without windows that Brandon borrowed from work and stopped for gas at a 7-11. The pump had a color screen on it with a local news station and a fake weather reporter miming this and that. The screen was muted but the pictures showed things would continue like this for the next few days.

We leaned against the van while the gas pumped and Brandon told me about his work and how they made him take time off because he couldnt keep himself together.

"This isn't fucking right." he says to me, "He wasn't supposed to die." The doctors said he was recovering fine from a quadruple bypass heart surgery. Uncle Matt had flown in from Hawaii to watch over him while he recovered, cook for him and keep the house clean, make sure he moved around every once in a while and help him back to his room when he was tired. The doctors said he was doing fine. They changed his prescription to modify the thickness of his blood. Two days later he didn't wake up for breakfast.

When we arrived at the funeral parlor Brandon said take as much time as you need I don't need to be anywhere and I went behind a curtain where he was laying on an elevated cart like a hospital bed, only without all the tubes. A single blue cloth covered his body, which seemed full, hearty, healthy. Directly across from him was a couch, positioned as if he were some mistaken replacement for an entertainment center.

He seemed to just be sleeping but I put a hand on his belly and it was hard. I had nothing to say and the room felt empty. I wondered why I wasn't crying for this corpse and I walked over to a mirror, the only decoration in the room aside from a vase of silk flowers next to me.

There was a small wooden table that wasn't much wider than the mirror above and I leaned on it with both hands to look at the glass. I looked wondering if the man was in me, if he was even here at all, and I saw my eyes were brown. The soft lighting made them fade away to a near-tan hue. I kept looking, though, past my reflection into the black, past another reflection and I saw him looking back. My eyes started to turn red and I looked away to see Brandon looking in on me from the other side of the curtain. I said hey and he came in and put his hand on Grampa's forehead and brushed his hair back. He said nothing and exhaled. Then he cursed and went to sit on the couch. He dropped his elbows to his knees and put his hands like a steeple to his mouth and lifted his brow to keep his eyes open.

"He shouldn't be there," Brandon says, "not yet." He was more mad than upset and he cursed and opened his hands to cradle his face and let his head drop, his fingers sifting through his dark hair.

"Yeah," I say.

"We were supposed to ride, we were going to ride when I got the MotoGuzzi up and running, we were supposed to ride, we were supposed to ride," he says. I said nothing and we sat there watching him for minutes, unmoving, inanimate.

He said "Well, we should probably get going. I have to pick up Erik from the airport in a bit but I want to get something to eat first, have you eaten anything?" I said I could eat, remembering how all I'd had was a bagel this morning and the plane snacks.

We stepped up in the van and clacked its heavy doors at the same time. Brandon's didn't shut all the way so he had to reopen it and close it again.

"Goddamn piece of shit," he says and the van shakes slightly from the impact. I look down at the passenger mirror and my eyes were dark brown again.

We pass through light after light and globules of old snow covered in muck lie here and there along the roadside and they're like a series of leeches at random intervals. We stop and go, stop and go, and Brandon says we're almost there.

"Say something, man you're freaking me out," he says. I looked at him and shrugged and said I don't know what to say.

"I'm still taking it all in."

"Yeah, me too. What do you think about mom, eh?" he says. "They're all like a bunch of goddamn pillagers in his apartment. I can't believe it. I just can't believe it."

"Yeah, but Mom's in a tough spot. Think if you were her and she were dead. Youd have to deal with the same shit.

"Yeah I guess, but still. Jesus. He was doing fine. They said he was doing fine."

A few more city blocks and we pulled over to the side of a road where a triplex with a For Rent sign in the front yard was guarded by a waist-high iron gate. The house was light blue with a dark trim and some of the paint near the bottom was peeling up to the sky revealing bonelike wooden panels that were beginning to rot and mold.

Inside it had wood-panel flooring that squeaked under my wet soles.

"My room's upstairs. You can put your things up there," says Brandon, pointing up a narrow unlit hallway before disappearing into a living room, a kitchen, a corner. I took my duffel bag upstairs and set it down near the top of the stairwell.

Brandon's room was across the hall and I stepped inside and flicked on the light. A crate of records at my feet was the only organization in the place with clothes, shoes, dishes, chords and bills strewn everywhere. A door opened and closed downstairs and Brandon called me down. I let the room go back to sleep and went down to meet him. He was standing in the kitchen and said this is the kitchen.

"Over there is my roommate's roomoff limits, you just came through the living room. Anything you want to eat go ahead, but theres not much." He asked if I wanted to order pizza and I said sure and gave him the last ten bucks that I had left from my week's wages.

Brandons roommate got off of work and had come home with a half rack in each hand as I was handing him the money. He shut the door with his foot behind him and asked Brandon if he had to work.

"No they won't let me come back for at least a week."

"Good, because you're getting drunk tonight."

Brandon said "No, no, my brothers are here tonight and they'll be staying for a few days."

"So, he said, they can get drunk too. I'm sure they need it just as bad as you do."

He clunked the half racks on the countertop and tore one open, loosening the top of the bottle with practiced skill and chucking it to a wastebasket across the kitchen. He missed and watched it bounced off the rim, then gave a grunt of protest. He found another bottle in the box and opened it and sent the cap flying through the air again and it fell into the basket with ease, then took the beer to my brother.

Brandon took a swig and offered one to me. I said sure, I guess, and took one of the bottles. I opened it with an ease that surprised me and my brother asked when I started drinking. I said New years and he asked his roommate if they had anything else and started going through the cupboards. He pulled a bottle of Captain Morgan's spiced rum from the cabinet and asked if they had any pop in the house. His roommate said no and he took out a small silver cell phone that flipped open and held I to his ear.

"Hey, what're you doing?" I look at Brandon and he's watching the bottle of rum, staring at something in front of it but not quite looking past it. His roommate tells whoever on the other end of the phone to bring some coke so they could mix drinks.

Brandon asked for the phone and dialed the number on a refrigerator magnet to order a pizza. A few minutes later a knock came to the door and a busty blonde woman was standing on the other side. She held up two two-liters of coke and a paper bag with a bottle in it that turned out to be peppermint schnapps. I watched her saunter through the kitchen as if her hips were meant to destroy things or be used to rearrange furniture and she called out Brandon's name. He said hey, Sista, and introduced me as his big little brother. She held out a small hand for a firm grip and I took it.

Brandon's roommate took the womans things and hauled them into the kitchen. He set them down on the table with the other beer and the rum and told me to finish my beer so I could have the drink of the house so I did.

Back at the house I find my drink at the coffee table in front of the couch in the living room. I take a seat as Erik follows Brandon into the kitchen and picks up the bottle of Captain Morgans and holds it in both hands. He lifts it slightly and asks if he can have some and Brandon trades him a glass for the bottle. He pours some in and the gold liquid crests inside the cup as if licking its base, lapping up its emptiness and being hugged in return. He stops after pouring about an inch and tells him to fill it with coke. Erik guffaws and says come on, and Brandon says no so Erik shrugs and drinks from the glass. He didn't snuff like I did at the taste and I knew hed seen more of the college life states away than I had at home.

After introducing himself to the others in the room he comes to sit by me. Brandon gets caught-up in some drama with the woman and we watch and wait.

"We've got pizza coming in a few," I say and he nods like a bobble head doll while lifting the drink to his lips. He takes a sip and purses his lips, then hits my knee with the back of his hand.

"So what you been up to?"

"School. Work. I'm going to a funeral in a couple days." He nods and looks ahead for another drink and says me too. "How's school treating you?" He goes into detail about the who, what and how much of his drinking sprees between tests and pot and scrounging for food. He starts laughing into his drink and asks if I want to hear one of the jokes a guy he knows told him. Sure, I say.

"What's grosser than a pile of dead babies?" he asks.

"I don't know if I want to hear this," I start and he says, "The live one trying to eat his way out." He laughs and I can't help but to laugh with him, if only for the sake of laughing. He starts to tell another one, but the pizza comes and I jump to answer the door.

The night blurs on and I wake up in a chair upstairs and Erik is asleep on the floor nearby. I get the book out of my duffel bag that I tried to read before but I can't make sense of the words. I look back at the light coming in through a window behind me and notice the paint on the sill is cracking just as the paint outside is. I notice my mouth is pasty and it looks like I dribbled something down my shirt last night, but I don't bother to smell it to find out what. I brush at it but it stays and stares up at me.

A few minutes later Brandon walks in with a CD book and sets it on the floor next to a small radio. He leans over to see if Erik is sleeping and gives me a nod before heading into the kitchen for a glass of water. He comes back in and crouches by the CD player and carefully lifts a CD from the case with his pinky and presses the lid to the player shut. I can tell its Pink Floyd by ambient tones that build slowly to a trumpet. It sounds like the end of a Western. He sits for a moment and gets up, stepping over Erik to the kitchen again and I hear clicks and sifting grains as he prepares a pot of coffee.

The smell creeps through the room as the music builds and Erik rolls over to look around and his eyes shut again while Brandon starts to rinse some dishes. He stops after not too long and walks to where the rooms split with a hand towel wiping away the water. He lops the towel over his shoulder and puts his hands in his pockets while leaning a shoulder up against the wall and stares at the floor. I notice for the first time a trail of dark hair crawling from a vague belly button over his breastbone where it fans out like windblown snow snakes over pavement. I'm not in the mood to do dishes, he says and I don't have any food. I nod and we spend the next hour listening to the music while Erik sleeps.

Just before noon Erik groans awake and asks what time it is. I look at the watch Grandpa sent me for Christmas just months before and tell him. Get up says Brandon, we need to get stuff to eat unless you want Ramen. He says hell no and does a push-up before falling back down into his pillow and holding it close and I watch the muscles in his back relax and his eyes droop to a close. Brandon kicks him slightly and says to go take a shower and kneels again at the CD player to skip to a different song on the CD. It has the pops and crackles from a record in the background playing alongside an acoustic solo. When the line comes, Wish you were here, Brandon goes into his bedroom. A few minutes later he's dressed and comes out putting in his belt and fastening a Leatherman to the back.

Erik goes around him to take a shower and when we leave for Grampa's he's still bleary-eyed. Once at the apartment Erik shies away from the door but reaches for the doorbell. It's probably open, I say and he reaches for the brass doorknob instead. The house smells of eggs and bacon and Matt's wife is walking to the table with a bowl of grapes. As mom gets Erik's attention and tells him she wants him to meet somebody I walk back through the hallway that I remember being so much wider to his room, his office, the bathroom. I turn the lights on and off again and Matt laughs behind me.

"That's usually the way those things work," he says.

I say "Oh, I was just," and I stopped talking before I finished the thought.

"Its okay, I was just messing with you. Lighten up." He walks away and I look in the old mans hall closet where he never let us look. There was a coffee cup with a half dozen tobacco pipes and I took one out to smell it. It still held the vanilla chocolate mint scent sponged up by Grampas leather jackets and the interior of his old truck. Mom walks up to me with a pen and a pad and asks if theres anything I want to take home with me and I put the pipe back in the cup and point to it.

"One of those, I guess. Maybe a pen."

She writes it down and gives me a hug and turns away looking at the notes she made. In the second I watch her turn the corner I see her face is drawn and weary with the shadow of tears left behind under her eyes. I close the closet door slowly with a finger and watch Clayton's daughters in the office opposite me playing solitaire on his computer. One is bugging the other for a turn so she can check her e-mail and the other tells her to go make sure no one is on the phone. I walk back down the hallway and Brandon is sitting in Grampa's chair next to Uncle Rich. He's telling a story about one of his adventures in South Africa and I listen in. He was talking and his talk was mesmerizing but he wasn't really saying anything. Brandon was tuned in, too and Uncle Rich's voice boomed when the climax of the story came and tapered off into a tone so much like Grampa's as if saying what a dumb ass he/she/it/they are with only the soothing inflection of his words and volume and pitch of his tone. Brandon laughs until he cant breathe and Rich keeps going.

That night we drink more and it feels good.

"With Uncle Rich here it's not so bad," Brandon says. "It's almost therapeutic." He stares ahead and pinches his nose between his eyes. "What am I saying? His fucking funeral is tomorrow." He starts crying and his roommate offers a shoulder and they stand in the hallway to his bedroom while Brandon tries to stop tears with a beer bottle in hand. But they don't stop into the night and the calls for more beer keep me from letting the alcohol put me to sleep.

I wake up alone again. But I know where I am. Erik got the chair and I wonder how he could have been so comfortable on the floor as I rub a sore spot on my hip.

When everybody wakes up we play a video game where we blow up worms to pass the time because none of us want to go to the apartment again. We eat macaroni from a pot Brandon wiped down with a paper towel and I shower for the first time since the flight in.

The linoleum is cold and my breath has a faint steam to it. I check the window but it is closed all the way and turn the faucet on full-hot. It takes a while to heat up and I look in the mirror while waiting. My eyes are slightly reddened, either from the late night or tears in my sleep. Steap starts to dance and cloud up the mirror so I step into the shower. The soap has bits of rock and shells in it and doesn't lather well but smells good. Soon after I shave to a steamy mirror and Brandon shaves with me. He has a pair of slacks on and I don't remember the last time I saw him in slacks. I ask him about it and he says "Probably high school graduation almost 10 years ago and that was because Mom made me."

We drive in silence to the funeral parlor and people start to trickle in the small room. The man at the front desk smiles at me. I look away and in a few minutes Dad's mother walks in with my aunt. She walks over for hugs and asks how I'm doing. I say fine and she asks why I haven't been writing, did I get the letters she's been sending. I say yeah and she apologizes for Grampa. I tell her about her ex-husband's condition in Seattle but she says nothing as someone takes the microphone at the front of the room. I take a seat next to her but I leave half way through the ceremony to cry on my brother's lap.

When the eulogies are over by the old mans brother and a few of his children we all go our separate ways. Brandon and I are about to leave with Erik when someone pulls us into the room for pictures and none of us smile.

The next morning I tap Erik awake to say goodbye and he went back to sleep after a groan and I patted him on the shoulder. Matt was waiting for Brandon and me downstairs and drove us to the apartment. Brandon struts in and sits in Grampa's old chair and gets wrapped up in another one of Uncle Rich's stories while mom walks up to me pulls me aside. She hands me one of the pipes wrapped in a leather tobacco pouch that smells like vanilla and chocolate and mint. It was his blend and he died with it. She said one of my aunts didn't want the same pipe I did, so she was able to save it for me. She hands me one of his silver pens and says here you go and gives me a hug.

She asks if I'm okay and I say yeah, are you?

"I'm hanging in there," she says. She scratches her eyes, more weathered now than yesterday and the day before, and she says she doesn't think she can take much more of this. I hold the pipe and twist it in my fingers and smell it again. I wrap it in the leather pouch slowly and kneel to unzip my duffel bag and put it neatly inside. I put the pen in my pocket and stand up.

"Well, at least the worst part's over," I say. She starts to cry and I wrap her up in my arms. "The worst part's over," I say and she sobs into my shoulder.

I lean back to tell her I need to make the rounds and say goodbye to everybody. She says okay and goes back to her seat at the table where her notepad was strewn across a pile of paperwork that looked like bills and bank statements and handwritten notes. I walk over to Brandon and put a hand on his shoulder. He startles and looks back at me.

"Jesus, man, don't do that," he says and exhales.

"I'm going to make the rounds, so be ready to go in the next few minutes, alright?" He tells me he's going to stay and help out so Matt will take me to the terminal.

I walk over to the kitchen and stop by the two aunts who were starting to cook and wave goodbye. Matt's wife stops what she's doing to wipe her hands on a towel she's looped through her belt and opens her arms for a hug. She says good bye and asks what I've been up to lately. I say school and work and she wants to know where I'm working. The other aunt listens in and says well, goodbye and opens up for a hug.

"Sorry we didn't get to spend more time together," she says and I say yeah. Maybe another time. Uncle Rich made his way to the table where he sits with Uncle Clayton and Uncle Matt and mom. He stands for a handshake and pulls me closer for a hug. My chest begins to burn like before and he tells me to keep the lions in line back home. I say okay and he sits back down. Uncle Clayton stands next to offer a hand and says I should keep in touch so I can come skiing with the girls some time. I tell him I don't ski and he says I can be taught. I smile and say good bye.

The living room is full of people watching TV and the don't notice as I go by and down the hall to the old man's office where the girls are playing solitaire. They don't notice me come in until I say goodbye and they wave at me. One turns the swivel chair away from the computer and comes to give me a hug. The phone rings in the other room and she says have a safe trip. I turn around and peek inside the closet once more, noticing the penny inside the finger hole that I got in trouble for getting stuck in there as a child. I close the door as I hear mom almost yell what to nobody in the room. She says oh my god and starts to cry when she asks through tears and says oh my god, Johnny, I'm so sorry.

My cousin peeks out of the office door down the hall and we watch as Uncle Matt approaches me and says my dad's on the phone. I clench my teeth and can feel my jaw muscles move and pulse with the pressure. I walk into the kitchen where Brandon is holding mom while she cries. I pick up the receiver.

"Hey, Dad."

"Hey, bud," he says over a static line. He tells me his father died early this morning in a veteran's hospital in Seattle. He had been watching over his father and wasn't able to come down with me to this funeral. I looked at mom and she broke loose to hug me and she cried into the receiver. I moved it to the other side and patted her on the back.

"Are you okay?" I asked and he said yeah, having known time was against his father weeks ago. He exhaled and it sounded like a hiss over the static. "Well, I'll be heading out here in a bit, so Ill be at the airport there in a few hours."

"Alright, bud let me talk to your mother again." I handed her the phone. And she made an effort to stop crying so she could talk.

I took a glass from the cupboard nearby and felt eyes on me as I walked to the sink and my aunt backed out of the way while I filled it up. I turned and leaned my butt against the counter listening to mom and looking at the linoleum wishing I had a drink. Mom said okay I'll call you later tonight, yeah, I'm okay. Alright. Good bye. Mom hung up the phone slowly and walked over to me for a hug. Matt put a hand on Brandons shoulder and I patted Moms back.

"Are you going to be okay, ma?" I asked and she sniffed and nodded in my shoulder.

I patted her again and she loosened her grasp. My hands slipped into my coat pockets and I walked to the living room while Uncle Matt looked down to his keys. The TV was now muted and I noticed the whole house was silent. I could hear my footsteps on the carpet and my cousins came out and leaned against the wall. I felt them watching as I walked around to the different people in the living room to say good bye.

I finally came to Uncle Rich's wife sitting quietly near the TV with her back to it and stood with open arms as I came near. She looked young and wore turquoise earrings that weren't gaudy and a similar colored silk hair tie reining in flows of silver hair. She held me close and I said it was nice to meet you. I let loose of her but she held on. I could feel my chest burn somewhat and I patted her on the back. I tried to pull away and she pulled me closer. She kissed my cheek, this woman I'd only met the other day, and put a hand to my head so I wouldn't pull away.

"You're so brave," she said in my ear and the burn in my chest erupted with a cough and I couldn't speak over sobs as I walked out while Matt held the door.

I'd wiped my face dry by the time we reached the pickup and threw my duffel in the passenger seat next to me. Matt waited before starting the car and asked if I was alright. I said yeah and he said he wouldn't tell anybody if I cried. I said thanks but made no noise while my cheeks began to drip. I sat alone on the plane back home and leaned my head against the window to watch the wing shake as it fights with the clouds.

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In the first chapter, the narrator goes through the trials of the death of his grandfather on his mother's side. He is excused from school for a week and sent to the funeral. While in town, he stays with his brother and shares in the mourning with him, but to a lesser degree, having not known the man as intimately. The chapter ends with the message that his grandfather on his father's side has passed away and he is sent back home.