What I’m trying to explain to my brother when I visit for the third time in a single week is that there are some things you just can’t sell at a yard sale. Old toothbrushes, for example. Worn-out pairs of underpants. Half-empty bottles of liquor. But he’s already laid them out on a card table along with the Matchbox cars he’ll want back as soon as they’re sold, an old tennis racket, a jar full of screws labeled “screw’s,” three of my mother’s old driver’s licenses, and a box of photographs snapped during the three-year stretch when my mental development had yet to overtake his. We both have the same Davy Jones haircut in all of these photographs. We’re both wearing bell-bottom dungarees or bright-red pajamas with white plastic feet or the matching Hawaiian shirts my grandparents brought back from their trip to the islands. In every shot, the look on my face says I’ll bet my brother can do damn near anything, while the look on his is more along the lines of where the hell did this little guy come from? He still gives me the same look whenever I try to explain why he shouldn’t smoke cigarettes or bring stray animals home or sell liquor at a yard sale. Technically speaking, he could move out and try to live on his own, but no one’s sure if he’s ready for it yet. It’s easier just to let well enough alone. If that means Michael gets it in his head every now and then to cart all of his earthly possessions onto the front lawn so it looks like my parents have been evicted, then so be it.
No one asks about it anymore, but when they did, my mother used to explain Michael’s handicap by saying that there were some complications when he was born, and she’d leave it at that. Of course, we never called it a handicap in my family because my father hated the word. He also hated the phrase “mentally challenged,” and once backed me up against a wall with a thick, hairy forearm when he heard me call Michael a stupid retard. I was nine years old at the time. We were building a tree house, and my brother had just whacked himself in the thumb with a hammer. When I muttered the phrase under my breath, I wasn’t thinking of him as a stupid retard per se, I tried to explain, gasping for breath under the weight of my father’s heavy forearm as Michael wailed away behind him. It was more like calling him a dumb-ass or a shit-for-brains or a Polack. In fact, I was thinking but never got a chance to say that calling Michael a stupid retard only worked as an insult if I assumed that he wasn’t actually retarded. After all, what good’s an insult if it merely points out the obvious? This argument, however, only came out as a torrent of tears and snot as my face turned red and my mother shouted up to us through the hole in the floor to ask why Michael was crying.
“Your brother isn’t a retard,” my dad said. “He’s just slow.”
The tree house still stands in my parents’ backyard. Once a year, dad and Michael perform a safety inspection together, hammering on the walls and floorboards with a rubber mallet and checking the support beams for signs of rot. If anything needs to be replaced, they drive to the hardware store together and load Dad’s truck with more lumber than they need. Every year, Mom asks if she can help, and every year, Dad shakes his head and says that he and Michael are doing men’s work. Maybe she can make some iced tea or lemonade if she wants to make herself useful, Dad says. Otherwise, Mom can just step aside. There’s a theatricality to all this, of course. Playacting for Michael’s sake. When Mom asks if they’re sure she can’t be of any help, Michael repeats Dad’s last line, thus concluding the ritual: Step aside. In the beginning, I used to play along myself, rolling my eyes, and shaking my head at Mom as I repeated Dad’s line after Michael. But that was twenty years ago, and visiting them now is like shaking a snow globe: I’m there to upset the delicate balance they’ve built around my brother.
This time around, he’s reading a book called Let’s Have a Yard Sale! He borrowed it from the library where he has been working five days a week for the past seven years. Every morning he takes two buses a total of three miles to get there. He knows exactly when each bus is supposed to arrive and shakes his head in disgust when they’re late. I know this because my mother used to walk with him to the first stop every morning until he told her he was old enough to get to work on his own—just like, I’m sure he has argued more than once since checking the book out of the library, he’s old enough to hold a yard sale on his own. After all, Irving Meckles, the esteemed author of “Let’s Have a Yard Sale!” clearly states in the introduction of his forty-eight page tome that a yard sale is a great way for anyone aged eight to eighty to clean house and raise a few dollars in the process. When I ask if I can see the book, Michael flashes the cover at me and just as quickly goes back to reading it.
“That’s real mature,” I say, and he shrugs. “Come on, Michael. Give me the book.”
“You see with your eyes, not with your hands.”
“Okay, Michael. May I have the book?”
“It’s a library book,” he says. “I’m not allowed to share it.”
“Give me the book, Michael.”
I talk to him the way strangers do. I speak slowly. I use direct address. It’s the same voice I use to get my dog to sit or shake or lie down. I wonder sometimes if Michael notices that people speak to him differently than they speak to everyone else. I wonder if it bothers him. I wonder if he cares. When I was in college, I’d try to have adult conversations with Michael. We’d sit in the tree house, and I’d ask him about social issues, about politics, about philosophy and religion. If I challenged him, I thought, maybe he’d rise to the occasion and share insights on the human condition that were so obvious that the rest of us had missed them. Not that the insights themselves were so important to me. What I really wanted was for Michael to tell me he’d be okay, that his handicap, or whatever Dad wanted to call it, wasn’t so bad. That deep down inside, he had the same spark that moved the rest of us. That he could not only take care of himself but that he was aware of his own limitations and was taking steps to overcome them. I wanted my brother to tell me that my dad was right, that he really was just a little slow, that he wouldn’t be my responsibility when my parents grew too old to take care of him or, worse, when they died.
Before he worked at the library, Michael worked on a cemetery maintenance crew with the grown son of an older couple who lived down the street from my parents. The son was thirty-six years old at the time. His name was Gary. Gary and his girlfriend lived in the basement of his parents’ house. Their daughters slept in Gary’s old room. For the six weeks they worked together, Gary drove Michael to the cemetery in his electric-blue Chevy Camaro. It was during this period that Michael started smoking, cursing, listening to heavy metal music, and plastering his bedroom with photos of trashy girls in cutoff jeans lounging on the hoods of muscle cars or straddling motorcycles. When I asked my parents what they thought of Michael’s new lifestyle, my mother said he was just experimenting and my father told me in no uncertain terms that Michael was his own man and had to be allowed to make his own decisions. Unfortunately, his switch from groundskeeping to shelving books did little to change Michael’s sense of culture. He didn’t abandon Black Sabbath for Proust, or cancel his subscription to Hotrod Digest to make time for Dostoyevsky. And although contact with Gary came to an abrupt end as soon as Michael stopped working at the cemetery, they greet each other like lifelong brothers-in-arms when Gary shows up at the yard sale.
“Michael, my man!” Gary says, striding up the sidewalk in ripped blue jeans and a faded Metallica tee shirt.
“Gary!” Michael says. It’s the most animated I’ve ever seen him, and he manages to stretch our neighbor’s name into five or six syllables: “Guh-ha-hay-a-ry!”
“Don’t leave me hanging, buddy,” Gary says, an open hand hovering in midair.
Michael extends a hand, and the pair engage in a secret shake that puts every digit to work and ends with their thumbs interlocked as their hands flutter skyward like a butterfly. When the butterfly reaches its apogee, they jerk it back toward the ground and pull each other close in a one-armed embrace. This is how hip-hop stars hug each other. Pro athletes. Real estate agents in silk shirts and gold chains. In all my life, I don’t think I’ve touched my brother as much as Gary has touched him in the last five seconds. The upshot, however, is that Michael has let go of his library book, and I’ve snatched it up.
“What’s up, bro?” Gary says as they pull away from each other.
“Yard sale,” Michael says with a shrug.
“Clear out the attic, make a few bucks. Not bad.”
“Eh,” Michael says.
“How much for the booze?”
“It’s not for sale,” I say.
“Yes it is,” Michael says.
“No,” I say. “It isn’t.”
Gary raises his hands in mock surrender and backs away from us. He has long, greasy hair and a scruffy beard. His girlfriend is ten years younger than he is. They had their first child when she was eighteen and he was twenty-eight, but the look on Gary’s face as he backs away from us is one of pity and condescension. He still lives with his parents, for Christ’s sake, I want to scream, but I smile and apologize for the misunderstanding.
“Why did you do that?” Michael demands as Gary slinks away.
“You can’t sell liquor at a yard sale,” I say, thumbing through his book on the off chance that Irving Meckles included a proviso regarding the sale of state and federally regulated goods. “It’s against the law.”
“But it’s mine,” he says.
“That’s beside the point. And it’s not yours. It’s Mom and Dad’s.”
“But they don’t want it,” Michael says.
“Did they say that? Did they say you were allowed to sell their booze at your little yard sale?”
“That’s my book,” Michael says. “Give it back.”
“They didn’t, did they? And do you know why they didn’t? Because it’s against the law, Michael. You could go to jail for what you’re doing. And so can Mom and Dad. You don’t want that, do you?”
“I want my book,” Michael says. “And I want you to leave me alone.”
“That’s not what I asked you, Michael. I asked if you want Mom and Dad to go to jail.”
He looks at his feet. He looks at the sky. He looks far to the left and far to the right. I’m not sure if he’s ever looked me in the eye.
“It’s my yard sale,” he says.
“We’ll see what Mom and Dad have to say about that,” I say, but I know I’ve already lost the battle. Mom’s just going to say something about walking a mile in my brother’s moccasins, and Dad’s going to tell me that Michael has to make his own decisions. The same thing happened when he stopped working at the cemetery. When I asked my parents why, they gave me the same old song and dance. It was Michael’s life, they said. If I really wanted to know, I could ask him myself. They wouldn’t even tell me whether he’d quit or gotten himself fired.
Gathering the bottles, I head for the house.
“Those are mine,” Michael says, grabbing my arm and spinning me around to face him.
I could drop them, I think. I could drop all the bottles on the ground and let them break into a million pieces and tell Michael it’s his fault for catching me off guard, but I hold tight and tell my brother to let go of my arm.
“Let go of my arm, Michael.”
“Give them back.”
“Michael.” I say his name the way he hates people saying it. As if he’s a child. As if he’s being unreasonable. As if he’s a stupid retard. “Let go of my arm, Michael.”
“You don’t understand,” he says. “You never understand.”
“I understand that you can’t sell liquor at a yard sale. Or toothbrushes, or underpants for that matter, but first things first, right?”
“I need the money,” Michael says.
“Oh, there’s a laugh,” I sneer, jerking my forearm from the grip of his pudgy, white hand. “Mom and Dad buy you everything.”
“I hate you,” Michael says, and I turn my back on him.
Inside the house, Dad’s watching a documentary on Dwight Eisenhower, but Mom’s been watching Michael arrange his inventory on the front lawn since before I arrived. Which means, I point out, that she’s known about the liquor all along and hasn’t raised a finger to stop him from selling it. When Mom says she doesn’t see what the big deal is, I ask what she thinks would happen if he sold the booze to some dumb kid, or, worse, an undercover cop.
“I think the police have better things to do than stake out yard sales,” my mother says.
“But you see my point, right?”
“I’m keeping an eye on him,” my mother says.
We’re in the kitchen, speaking softly so as not to bring Dad into the conversation. Each of us has our own reason for adopting this strategy. Mom knows that Dad will, at least in part, side with me and curse under his breath when he finds out that Michael’s trying to sell booze to passing strangers on the front lawn. On the other hand, I know that I’ll suffer the brunt of Dad’s rage for failing once again to observe the laissez-faire policy he has instituted to make a man of his older son. There will be harsh words of the four-letter variety, and I’ll be told that if I were half the man Michael is, I’d understand why I have to let him make his own mistakes. There will be no mention of the fact that I live on my own, that I pay my own bills, that I wake up every morning and march like a good soldier to a job that’s killing me, that I worked my way through college, that I haven’t been with a woman in years because between work and worrying about Michael I don’t have a leg to stand on, that my life, in general, is a miserable wasteland, and that all I have to look forward to is more of the same, punctuated only by the occasional Michael-related “misunderstanding” with the neighbors or the law. Like the time he wandered into a steakhouse and ordered a forty-five dollar dinner and didn’t have the money to pay for it, or the time he threatened to beat the shit out of the bus driver if he ever showed up late again, or the time he was caught watching the woman next door sunbathe in the nude from the vantage point of his tree house. Mom never tells Dad about these incidents. She tells me. So I’m the one who always has to clean up after him. When I mention these incidents to my mother, she gives me a look that says I’m the most heartless human being alive for bringing them up and tells me that if my brother is so much of a burden, then maybe I should just forget about him.
“You know that’s not what I want,” I say.
“Then what do you want?”
I want to know what happened at the cemetery, but before I can say so, Dad walks in and asks where the hell Michael is.
“Out front,” I say. It’s a struggle not to add selling old toothbrushes and soiled underpants to the neighbors, but the weariness in my father’s voice keeps me in check.
“I just looked,” he says. “He’s not there.”
“Then he’s probably in the tree house,” Mom says.
Dad looks at me and curses under his breath. I don’t think he means to be such a bastard. He’s just worn down. I think he knows he’s wrong about Michael but hates to admit it. My brother isn’t just slow. He has a real problem. Regardless of what you call it, the fact is that Michael’s never going to catch up to the rest of us. But facing the problem and admitting that he doesn’t know what to do about it is too big of a burden for my dad to handle on his own, and I can see the frustration in his face every time he has to think about it. Twenty years ago, he could play the game. Even ten years ago it wasn’t so bad. But climbing up to the tree house gets a little harder each time he does it, and now Dad’s muttering under his breath that one of these days he’ll have to tear it down. He has painted himself into a corner as far as Michael’s concerned, and he knows it. The situation hasn’t changed in thirty years, and there’s nothing my father can do to help his number-one son.
“Someone better tend to the yard sale,” Mom says as Dad grumbles out the back door to look for Michael.
This, it seems, is my cue to lay down the liquor bottles and assume my role as the helpful brother. Out front, I take a seat in a lawn chair and keep an eye on the junk Michael has laid out to tantalize the neighborhood. Most of it, I realize, is mine—old textbooks, toy robots, a baseball glove I may have worn twice, rolled-up movie posters, electronic games you might call vintage, action figures, old magazines, model cars I never got around to building, a rock tumbler, and an old camera. Then, of course, there’s my mother’s stuff—gimmicky exercise equipment for the most part, devices for flattening the abdomen, strengthening the buns, or toning the arms. A young girl in ripped jeans and a Led Zeppelin T-shirt settles into a circular contraption designed to make the fitness enthusiast look like a defective rocking horse while doing sit-ups, and she asks me how much I want for it. Taking a shot in the dark, I tell her five dollars, and she says she’ll give me two. I could probably talk her up to two-fifty or maybe even three, but I decide the extra fifty cents isn’t worth the effort. It isn’t until after the money changes hands that I wonder how much my mother paid for the contraption and whether she still uses it.
“I’m Molly,” the girl says slowly, tapping her chest with the tips of her fingers. “I live down the street. My dad used to work with you.”
“You’re thinking of my brother,” I say.
The girl’s face turns red, and I tell her it’s okay. People make that mistake all the time. Before she leaves, I take another shot in the dark and ask if her dad ever talks about Michael. The girl shrugs as if to say once in a while, but not with any regularity, and I ask if he ever mentioned why Michael stopped working at the cemetery.
“My dad wasn’t part of that,” she says defensively.
“I’m not saying he was.”
“He wouldn’t have let them,” she says. “If he knew what they were up to, he wouldn’t have let them.”
“Who?” I ask.
“The other guys. At the cemetery. But my dad likes Michael.”
“I know he does,” I say. “But these other guys, what did they do?”
“They do it to everyone who works there.”
“It’s just for fun, and besides, dad didn’t have anything to do with it.”
A bunch of gravediggers, a cemetery, a grown man with the mental capacity of an eight year old. I can pretty much guess how it played out, just like I can pretty much guess that Gary wasn’t the innocent bystander he wants his daughter to believe he was, but I want the girl to tell me. I want to know the details.
“They grabbed him by the arms and legs,” she says when I press her on the subject. “They just finished digging a grave, and they were carrying him toward it. But my dad wasn’t there, though. He wouldn’t have let them do that.”
“Sure,” I say.
“He wouldn’t have. They picked him up and carried him toward the hole. They said they were going to bury him. Your brother started kicking and screaming, and my dad told them to cut it out.”
“I thought he wasn’t there. “
“He must have heard your brother screaming,” she shrugs. “But by the time he got there, the other guys were lowering Michael into the hole. Not all the way. They held him over the hole and said they were going to drop him in. My dad says your brother wet his pants. But this all happened a long time ago. Your brother works at the library now, my dad says. My dad says he’s okay.”
“Yeah,” I say. “He’s doing great.”
“It wasn’t my dad’s fault,” she says. “He told them to cut it out.”
“I know,” I say.
“He wouldn’t do something like that.”
“I know,” I say again.
“Besides, Dad says they do that to everyone who works there. It’s like an initiation or something.”
I purse my lips and nod. I tell the girl to have fun with her abdominator or whatever it’s called. She tells me again that it wasn’t her dad’s fault, and I tell her it doesn’t matter because Michael’s okay now. It’s the lie my parents have been telling all along, and I’m okay with it as long as Molly’s okay with lying about her father, who, if he’s anything like mine, has a million ways to make her hate him and a million more to make her feel guilty for doing so.
I sit on the lawn with my family’s junk for another half hour before going back inside to see what’s going on with Michael. Dad’s in front of the television again. Mom’s on the phone. When I shoot her a quizzical look, she nods toward the kitchen window and mouths “tree house,” so I head out back and scale the wooden rungs we nailed to the tree years and years ago. The trap door that opens into the tree house still reads NO GIRLS ALLOWED!, but when I poke my head into Michael’s hideout, I see the walls are plastered with the same pinups that adorn his bedroom.
“Hey, buddy,” I say. “We made two bucks.”
“It’s not enough,” Michael says, sitting in a corner with his face in his hands.
“Not enough for what?”
The wood is soft. The floorboards give a little as I step toward my brother. I wonder how many years have passed since Michael and Dad last performed their annual safety inspection.
“They’re going to die,” Michael says. “Mom and Dad. They’re going to die one day, and I’ll be all alone.”
I sit down next to him. I don’t know what to say. We sit for a long time, legs crossed.
“But first they’ll get old,” he says. “They’ll get old, and I’ll have to take care of them.”
I can only guess he’s heard this kind of talk at the library, middle-aged crones complaining about parents with failing health. Not nearly as malicious as dangling him over an open grave, but I wish they’d think before filling his head with these kinds of worries. Hell, I don’t even want to think about my parents getting old. I mean, we all know it’s happening, but . . .
“I’m scared, Kevin,” my brother says. “I’m scared. I’m scared. I’m scared.”
“I’m scared, too, Michael.”
It’s the first time in our lives we’ve ever been on the same page. We sit in the tree house with our backs to the wall for what feels like hours until Mom calls us inside for lunch. Then we open the trap door and climb down to the ground, Michael first, then me, and I follow him into the house for sandwiches and lemonade.