had learned some chords; how he stood on my uncle’s table once, in
front of my family, and sang all of Garth Brooks’s “If Tomorrow Never
Comes,” and everyone clapped and cheered. When he finished, he
smiled for them.
I remembered how, at night, Chris would strum the guitar to make
Jonny and me jealous. We’d ask to play, and he’d say no. Until, one night,
Jonny tried grabbing at it, and Chris knocked him over the head with it.
It wasn’t even hard, a thump. But Jonny started crying. So Dad came in,
took the guitar outside, and smashed it to pieces against a porch post.
I can see it still, the look on Chris’s face when he heard the guitar
rattle and break outside the window.
Dad dragged the broken neck of the thing into the kitchen, whipped
it against the wall, called us ungrateful assholes, and dealt his beatings.
Mom begged him to settle down, but when Dad drank, he was either the
most passionate man, whiskey-voiced and full of brokenhearted love,
proclaiming his deep loyalty and debt to us—“I love you boys,” he’d say.
“My sons. I’d die for you”—or he was angry, with a darkness covering
him, and he’d become a different man.
Mom taunted him the night he busted up the guitar, called him
“Tough Guy” to draw him from us. She challenged him, pushed him.
Then he smacked her. And she ran from him. And he chased her down
the hall, punching her in the back.
My brothers and I lined up in the kitchen—about-face—the way Dad
preferred, to show him that we had surrendered, that he had nothing to
prove; we feared him.
Then he let us go to bed.
The night Chris slept on the porch, I imagined him strumming his guitar again, singing Garth Brooks the way he used to sing it—reluctant
and willing all at once, voice cracking at the end of the lines. It’s one of
a few peaceful images I still have of him. I wanted so badly to be bigger
then, to give him that at least—my braver self—and walk into the living
room and open the door. But he didn’t need it. He understood having
things taken from him. Besides, Mom didn’t hold anger the way Dad
did. She fizzled out, felt sorry. I expected her to fold that night and let
Chris in. But she didn’t.
I had underestimated her; we all had.
My only offer to my brother was to stay awake all night for him. I
could rescue him that way. I imagined running away, emptying my trea-