Sasha finished teaching Economics at the University around 4:30 PM. This gave him fifteen minutes to get home and strain the spaghetti for his brother, Sal, who around this time of day was usually asleep or lazily watching reruns of Jeopardy.
At the University, there had recently been talks of trouble going on with the Trustees; the President allegedly resigned due to irresponsible management. Political intervention. Accepting money from suspect donors. The outside air had a weight to it, was palpable; and the sky laid clear like an auditorium. People in these parts never knew how to walk, they were always interfering with your steps, rhythm, balance, chuffing their bodies into one another with obsessive urgency.
As a youth, Sasha spent his days in his room studying mathematics. Demure; the young boy filled with irrevocable nervousness had a natural timidity, and frequently was left to himself. He was never good with his hands—he couldn’t even change a lightbulb—and he had no desire to become an auto mechanic like his father. He wasn’t particularly passionate about mathematics, either, it just so happened he had a natural inclination towards numbers and solving equations. A real гений.
He started by slicing the onions, little bits of clove and vegetables. Sal was laying on his back on the beat up yellow couch they bought from Craigslist in the other room. Take your meds, Sal? he asked while boiling the water. Sometimes, when taking the thirty-minute walk through the city station, oftentimes veering off into the path which led through South Avenue and up back towards the liquor store to get home, Sasha thought to himself, what’s the point in even asking if he took his meds? They don’t help much anyway. Oftentimes he was frustrated with his position of being his brother’s caretaker; he always dreamed of being elsewhere, in a different country with a different life. Sal didn’t answer.
The apartment was old, the ceiling vaulted, broad and beige.
Sal culled the small pieces of meat. He liked to get Sal involved in things. To make him feel important. He wondered if Sal felt irresponsible, or perhaps guilty. After all, he had taken him in off the streets. But he was homeless by no fault of his own, and Sasha thought that society had simply failed his brother; negligence of the state—who could be blamed, he thought, for the lack of treatment his brother received? He certainly never told him any of this.
Auditory and visual hallucinations, paranoia, psychosis; these were the same symptoms their mother had suffered in 1989 when she was sent away to the ward on account of her nervous breakdown. Shadows kissed against the yellow wall tightly.
Sal never hurt himself. He was instead quiet, sleepy, rather introspective and never one to be the first to say something, even if it bothered him. Sasha tried to teach him how to do his laundry, or how to pay a phone bill. He’d say You get the darks together in a heap, and throw ‘em in. Then comes detergent. It wouldn’t stick, no matter how many different ways he tried to explain it, and not for lack of interest on Sal’s behalf; for he remembered how, as a teenager, he would watch reruns of old documentaries, whereupon he would be able to remember every detail and relay it back to you in chronological order.
Sal never had much to say. He enjoyed his television shows and staying in his room, where he sculpted small figurines out of polymer clay. Sasha couldn’t relate to his brother’s artistic hobbies. A hard-nosed economist and mathematician, he saw very little interest in things like art; perhaps in part because of their father, a brute, austere Russian auto mechanic who, not unlike his immigrant uncles—loud and drunken, but with heart—told him, do something that will make you money. Work with your hands, boy.
Awoken by drumming (patterns of rain in the still blue-black light of morning), perhaps the time was, four, five o clock, Sasha began boiling water on the stove. The apartment was still. Vacuous. He looked in Sal’s bedroom. Not in his bed. I saw him turn in, he thought.
Sal had run away before. One such time in particular was right after their mother had died, and Sal fixed himself a ride up to the border of Canada, rode on through to Montreal and hitchhiked, trying to learn French and wandering the Old Quarter like a bygone aristocrat, so perhaps, thought Sasha, this was no different. But, even so, why was he so concerned—or rather—why did he feel so compelled to feel concern for his brother’s whereabouts? His stomach then twisting like a rubber band spun around one’s index finger, tight enough to cut circulation.
Maybe Sasha should be out looking for him. No, that doesn’t make any sense. There were small gaps between the patterns of his thought—Sal might come back, so then what would be the point in looking for him? He should stay at the house and wait, yes. That’s final. He heaved a long sigh. Why is it even my problem where Sal is? He could feel his skin growing flushed and patchy, like the bark of a redwood tree. To assume that he felt alongside those feelings of anger, also regret, fear, and nervousness is not untrue, but wholly accurate.
The fan swayed in between the layers of heat like a knife, rotating blades splitting dust above where Sasha sat reclined in the old leather chair. He took a drink of whisky, Jack Daniels. The two brothers, as life would have it—through the inevitable shifting dynamism of familial bond—were not very close; bound merely by thin blood and proximity. Recounting the memories of childhood was difficult. Certain things blurred, people’s faces, where they were; it was as if the world back then never really existed at all. Sasha threw more whisky down his throat.
He had very few memories of him and Sal playing together as children, even less as teenagers. Sal stuck to a few boys in his class who read comics and painted; in contrast, Sasha wasn’t passionate about much of anything. He neither excelled nor failed in school, he simply existed as another appendage of the graduating class, the institution. Perhaps a more apt word would be invisible.
The brothers were always different from one another, always separated. Sasha looked out at the Norwegian maple tree outside his window, leaves burnt orange through the glistening handles of light. He smoked a cigarette.
Sasha was never domineering; he was always agreeable and unable to stand up for himself, particularly when it came to his father and Sasha’s complete disinterest in working as a carpenter and joining a union or working as a welder. My buddy Joe needs a helper for the demolition crew. Come on, get off your ass, he’d say. One summer at his father’s behest he did roofing, and after that swore off physical labor. It wasn’t in his genes, he thought. This swelled in him a deep feeling of inadequacy. At times he would wait for Sal to comfort him, act brotherly like his friends’ siblings would, but he never acted as such. And he knew Sal was burdened not only by mental illness—of which he often wondered if he too had inherited such neurotic traits—but also by the demands of society, and, despite the occasional pangs of loneliness, (such were often comparable to deep aches), he knew he couldn’t feel resentment about their faulty relationship. Who would allow that?
Sal went off to see a film at the local cinema down the street. Something about action and violence. In the house he opened a Red Bull and put it on the wooden table in the kitchen, sipping intermittently, taking slow, paced steps around the apartment; something their father used to do in his old age. Sasha thought to ask him where he went but decided against it instead. A mixture of lack of interest and fear of offending Sal stopped him in his tracks. He just nodded and walked past him. He knew tonight he would cook dinner and play the role of caregiver again in an endless cycle, recurring like that of a fever dream wherein one is trapped in a coffin or a room, either way: unable to get out.
There is always tension in the apartment, much like their childhood home growing up. Never violence, rather a grinding impediment, awkwardness. Thin and bald with a round face, Sal sat in his room watching television shows, who knows what, just flipping through channels in an endless stream of static consciousness. He felt in control here. This room, which was at one point a walk-in closet, now converted into a makeshift, functioning space fully his own.
It was night outside as Sasha stepped out onto the grey stone balcony overlooking the river, the stainless-steel railing slightly indented where he placed his hand. Yes, he blamed their parents for his relationship with his brother. How could one not? He thought. For example, the hospital stays for their mother. Their Russian father; uninvolved, yet still present, like an apparition. Still, he could never shake that feeling of—how should one say it—inferiority. низкое качество!
He looked down at the marbled river. Slabs of black water washed along the bank like rolling bodies of venetian glass. Всему своё место. (This Russian saying indeed translates to “there is a place for everything, and everything in its place.”) But what place does Sasha exist in if not for one housed in the precarious architecture of tumult and confusion? The colors of ruin? He remembered his father, and the tenderness with which he raised Sal. How a man can be so different, he thought.
I’ve done what I could; I’ve tried. He rubbed his hands together, ran his fingers through his tousled brown hair. More than our parents ever did, at least. He’d given his brother a place to live, he’d been an adjunct professor for the past ten years, he didn’t take drugs—in other words, he was at least minimally responsible. What more could the world want of him? He thought about his father again; that one autumnal morning in 1987, when he’d taught him how to tie a tie, his hands massive and stained with oil, leathery like a coat. He’d slap the back of his head if he missed a step, whatthehell? Didn’t I just tell you? Oddly, he missed him.
None too many memories left, he thought. And to articulate his feelings felt strange; yes, a better word would be “foreign”, as if he’d been a vagrant in some distant country for all these years, whose mainlanders spoke a language he still did not yet understand. He realized family never makes any sense. Or maybe it did, and he just couldn’t figure it out.
He stayed out there till the morning dew covered the grass in thick patches of wet. Beautiful in a way, he thought. For those effervescent emotions rising and down like dawn, always clawing their way out like millions of short chemical bursts exploding in concurrent breaths; getting lost in the waves, stirring the sea of his heart.
Jonathan Fischer is a poet and short story writer from New Jersey. Jonathan writes short stories, poetry, nonfiction, and dabbles in other forms of literary experimentation. His writing and visual art has appeared or is forthcoming in Literary Orphans, Futures Trading Lit Magazine, The Chiron Review, Driftwood Press, Apricity Magazine, and others.