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FROM the driver’s seat of my rental car I watch the landscape of my upbringing approach and recede at 85 miles an hour. The fields in their robust spring color, the blondness of wheat, the green of new corn stalks, sunflowers ringing a staid gray farmhouse. Home again, Central Illinois.

On Route 51, skirting Decatur, I pull into a rest stop near the Blue Mound turnoff, get out, stretch my legs. The air is hot and close. I swallow an aspirin, undo a button near my collar. A bead of sweat rolls from my temple, along my jaw and across to my chin before it slides down the front of my throat. The sun slips down the sky.

• • •

James Goodspear, my older brother, used to go by Jamie. Now most people call him Jim. I don’t know when that happened exactly, but even Janet, his wife, started off calling him Jamie and switched somewhere along the way. To his students at Macon County High, where he teaches math, he remains Mr. Goodspear, of course. Ms. Canty, the English teacher, his girlfriend, calls him Jimbo. In this she is alone.

As I approach Blue Mound I stop at a grubby little gas station and pick up some beer, as is expected of me. Once I get to Jamie’s house the beer goes in the chest freezer in his large, clean garage. When the kids go to bed Jamie and I will climb a ladder and take the beer up on the roof of his house, the bungalow on a couple of acres that he and Janet bought the year they were married, when Jim was 29 and Janet 24. It’s a nice little house, a lot like the one he and I grew up in, and no more than 15 miles away from there.

I arrive this Friday abutting the long weekend, pulling into the driveway to find Jamie and Janet in lawn chairs out front, their kids Angela and Robert splashing in a blue plastic wading pool. The gravel crunches and pops under my tires as I pull in, and the car begins to click after I shut it off. I step out into the warm air of the coming night, the paper bag in my hands containing a pair of six packs. Robbie and Angela run toward me in their bright bathing suits, their delicate torsos heaving and a tangle of their wet limbs around my legs and waist. Jamie approaches and shakes my hand. Janet offers me a kiss on the cheek.

“Hello, Janet.”

“How was the drive, Richie?” she asks.

“Flat,” I say, and we both smile.

“Come on, you two,” she says to the children, “time to get ready for bed.”

“We said they could stay up until you got here,” Jamie says, taking the paper bag from my hands and heading toward the garage.

• • •

We climb up onto the roof just as we would do when we were kids, and we watch the last of the light, a color like stained glass, draining from the west, looking out over the sky and the dimming fields. From down inside the house, over the drone of crickets, we hear Janet talking to the dog in her ex-smoker’s rasp. Even in the fading light we can see the railroad tracks from up here, their course a slash across the landscape, heading off toward Decatur to the northeast and St. Louis to the southwest in a line that suggests efficiency, and a hundred forgotten towns like Blue Mound along the way.

The stars pop like freckles, and as they appear over our heads I imagine them making a sound like beer can pull-tabs. I recline, feel the roughness of the shingles on my elbows and lower back.

“Memorial Day,” Jamie says. “About goddamn time, isn’t it?”

“Thought it would never get here,” I say.

“Might as well be Labor Day for your Cubs,” he says. “Season’s over.”

“That’s fucking rich coming from a Royals fan,” I tell him, then swallow a mouthful of beer, warm despite its time in the freezer.

“How’s the big city treating my little brother?”


“What about those big city women?”

“Even more cruelly,” I deadpan.

“Plenty of room around here for a guy to settle down, you know. Lots of good women waiting to marry.”

“You should know. You got two of ’em.”

“Careful there,” he says, then chuckles. “I know, you got the city in your head now, probably never leave. But you won’t see a sky like that in Chicago,” he says, nodding toward the pink and orange horizon. I look at his face, softly lit by the dead sun. He’s in earnest, I’ll say that for him, and deeply in love with this place, despite the headaches he’s created here.

“You’ve got me there,” I say.

I get through four Buds by the time Jamie drains the last of his six, and then we lie on our backs for a while, feeling the earth spinning below us.

“Glad you came,” Jamie says to me just before we make our wobbly way back down the ladder.

Inside, where it smells of spaghetti and meatballs and an old, timeworn dampness, Jamie points to my spot on the sofa, set up for me just like it always is. “You need anything?” he asks. I shake my head no. Then he heads down the hall on tiptoes, past the kids’ room, before slipping into bed next to a slumbering Janet.

• • •

I wake up to eggs frying and coffee percolating in the Mr. Coffee machine, and the house already feels hot. Standing at the range with her back to me is Janet, wearing a short robe, her dark brown hair like an angry bird’s nest. Hazel-eyed Janet Evans is sturdily beautiful now, just as she was in high school. She has wide shoulders like a swimmer, long arms, August-brown skin even in deepest January. She has nicks and scars covering those parts of her body left exposed by shorts and tank tops—a gash here, a burn there—because she has spent her life with men who took her at her word that she was willing to do heavy work. Her father had her driving a tractor by the time she hit 11. With Jim she has lived with her hands, laying sod, swinging careless hammers into her thumb, scraping her knees in the jagged gravel of the driveway while kneeling to check for the source of the oil leaking from their dusty Suburban. I visited them five years ago, right before she had Angela, smack in the middle of a hot and dry July, and even eight months pregnant she’d be on the riding mower once a week, and afterward humping the gas weed trimmer around the yard, wearing tall rubber boots and leather gloves, safety glasses and big orange muffs to protect her ears, the kind you see on baggage handlers. A couple of years later, pregnant with Robert, she spurred the labor on by hefting around packages of laminate flooring that Jamie was laying in the kitchen. The next morning she was in the hospital, and by lunchtime she was holding little Robbie.

What Jamie doesn’t know is that Janet and I spent a night together when I was back from school for Thanksgiving during my junior year at Iowa. She and Jamie had gone out a couple of times, and he was pretty serious about her. I knew that. I was at a party somewhere. It poured rain that night. Janet was there and she looked so pretty. We split a six-pack of wine coolers after somebody stole my beer, and she got a bit frisky. And I wasn’t arguing.

She and I have never spoken of it since, not once, and it’s been so long that I honestly don’t believe it’s what either of us is thinking about when Jim leaves the room for a minute. It’s there, of course, hazy and indistinct, but real. But it no longer requires thought; it has become a part of who we are.

Jim still counts himself a Royals fan, which probably means that were I to tell him of this he’d be capable of forgiving any of my transgressions with that oversized and generous heart of his. But it would remain, I know, a nettlesome thing there between us, and so I will die withholding this truth from him: that I want his wife more than any other woman I have ever known. I might even say that I fell in love with Janet that night. Might. If I knew just what that meant. I guess, since it is a thing I haven’t felt since with any other woman, that might be my clue. The women I have dated have all paled next to Janet’s image as it is seared into the back of my eyelids. The underdressed Chicago girls on trains, or in bars, with their loaded glances and their earnest curiosity, do not rouse me at all once I have compared their dewy cheeks and smooth, tawny thighs to Janet’s experienced flesh. I look at other women, of course. But to defeat any pangs of misapplied desire I have only to remember our one night together, when I was 19 and she a year younger, her smooth shoulders and the simple manner in which she raised her hips to help me slide off her underwear. It is a dusty memory, but it has come to me more times than I can count, and I have worried it smooth like a stone.

• • •

The kids put ketchup on their eggs. Jamie puts it on his steak. Every Saturday morning Jamie has steak and eggs, a thing I thought only the English and the very rich did until I learned of my brother’s weekly ritual. Janet offers to make me some, but I opt for Corn Flakes and a banana.

Today Jamie’s wearing what I call his Republican recruiter’s uniform. He really goes for that Dockers look, all khaki and sky blue, beige and white, but truthfully it suits his lean frame and short close-cropped head, perpetually buzzed to minimize the aging effect of his balding. We both got our father’s wiry frame; so far only Jim has been lucky enough to inherit dad’s hair loss. I’m dressed in black this day, as usual, and I’ll probably appear conspicuous here in pickup country.

We climb into Jim’s minivan—it’s got a DVD player with a small monitor that descends from the roof just behind the front seats, to keep the kids quiet on long trips—and as we roll down the country lanes he slips in a Led Zeppelin CD.

Like most North American boys, we both experienced a Zeppelin phase, spanning two or three summers. We grew our hair out and spent a lot of time in the basement rec room, dark and musty and cluttered, sitting before Dad’s boxy Realistic speakers, listening to Led Zeppelin IV and Houses of the Holy. This is what Jamie is trying to invoke by putting this on, this newly-released live CD culled from thirty-year old performances, and turning it up until his Caravan’s speakers are straining. He is calling on a time in the memory when we were teenagers, devious and grubby, curious and sullen. And it works. “Drive faster,” I tell him.

• • •

We’re off to the Home Depot in Decatur, some twenty minutes away, to get lumber and supplies, because Jamie and I don’t know what to do with each other when we’re not drinking on the roof. So we build stuff. Truthfully, it is one of my favorite things, and not something I often have the opportunity to do back in Chicago, where I and my apartment-kept friends have janitors and superintendents to tidy the edges and join the nuts and bolts of our daily existences. But when I visit Jamie, he’s careful to make sure there’s a project to keep us busy. This Memorial Day weekend we’re rebuilding his front porch, which was shoddily made to begin with and now stands rotting on pilings sent wandering off level by frost heave and the thousand bodies that have bounded over them.

As we rush along highways bracketed by cornfields, we begin to discuss our list of materials, giving me a chance to slip into a bucolic and practical voice I don’t get much chance to use in Chicago. We talk about two-by-fours and lag bolts and how best to hang stairs when Jamie suddenly turns to me and says, “Hey,” and I can tell this will have nothing to do with lumber or fasteners, “okay if we make a quick stop on the way?”

“Where at?”

“Friend’s house.”

“You’re driving.”

• • •

Brenda Canty is red-haired and freckly, short, round and inviting. Even her eyelashes are a pale orange, and her smile takes up half her face. I don’t want to like her, but I do. On this bright morning she’s reading a paper at a round plastic table on the stoop of her small townhouse just outside Decatur. She pops up when she sees Jimbo’s van pull into to the visitor’s spaces across the row, and bounds over to greet him. There is a half a moment’s hesitation in her step when I emerge from the passenger door, but my brother must shoot her an “It’s okay” look, because she continues to advance right into his arms.

“Jimbo,” she says, “and is this Richie?”

“The one and only,” he answers, and she comes around the front of the van to shake my hand. “I’m Brenda,” she says. “Happy to know you.”

“Likewise, Brenda,” I say. Jamie walks up behind her and joins his hands around her waist. She holds them and rocks gently side to side.

“Wow. You know, I feel like I know you,” she says to me.

“Brenda, honey,” Jamie says, “me and Richie’re headed into the Home Depot, so I thought I’d take care of that patching job for you.”

“Right. Oh, right. You know that’d be such a big help to me, Jim.” She turns to me. “Richie, your brother took down a bathroom cabinet for me, it was sort of in the way, you know? And he took it down off the wall for me, and wouldn’t you know there’s the ugliest hole back there?”

“Big hole punched right into it,” he says, nodding to me. “I’m just gonna measure it, sweetheart,” he calls, pulling a small tape from his pocket and bounding up the step and through the screen door.

Brenda and I are left standing on the small front lawn. There is a silence. “What’s new in the world?” I ask, pointing to her USA Today.

“What’s ever new?” she says, and we both offer polite laughter.

There is a pause. “I understand you’re a teacher?”

She says: “Oh, yes. I love it. That’s how I know your brother. I guess he told you that.”

“Yes he did.” We laugh.

“You know, I hope this isn’t uncomfortable for you,” she says. “I don’t really know what to say here.”

“No, I don’t either.”

Brenda Canty gives me a wide-eyed expression, a smile that seems to offer an apology. It’s an open, Midwestern face that helps me understand how a person might decide to pitch irony altogether and buy a house and a lawn tractor and prepare to weather the last two-thirds of their life with someone capable of that look. This is a hell of a quagmire that Jamie’s created, an ungainly mess with more potential victims than solutions. I asked him awhile back if he had an exit strategy. He didn’t. Just a series of ill-defined hopes and ambitions, and a vague desire not to see anyone hurt. It’s a bad situation, and I can’t help but feel that by bringing me here he’s made me a party to it, but I can’t hold any of that against Brenda. She seems like a very decent woman who went looking for love and happened to have the rotten luck of finding it with a married man.

Jamie comes crashing back out the screen door. Brenda asks, “Can I get you boys anything? Coffee, a glass of water?”

“Thanks, I’m fine,” I say.

“Hey, look,” Jamie says, “I guess we should get going. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. Brenda, honey, I’ll bring some tools by later this week, maybe, fix that hole up.” Brenda looks at the ground, kind of paws at it with her sandaled foot.

“That’d be so wonderful, Jim,” she says, and then turns to me. “Maybe we’ll see each other again, then.”

“Who knows?” I say. “It was good to meet you, Brenda.”

Jamie blows a kiss to her as we climb back into the van. He glows. “See you later, hon,” he calls, then presses the button to roll up his window.

• • •

Decatur is a dying city. I’m looking at the rotted shells of warehouses and silos that dot the south end as we roll by. Jamie is silent for a long while.

Finally: “What do you think of her?”

“She seems very nice, Jamie.”

“You see what I mean about her not being like Janet.”

“Well, hmm. I guess. I mean, she’s not your wife, so that’s one real big difference right there.”

“Fuck you,” he says. “Fuck you, you fucking fuck.”

This hurts, but not for the intended reason. It hurts because words like that used to roll out of Jamie, used to suit him, his defiant posture, his fearlessness—he’d swear at anybody—and were a peculiar point of admiration for me. Now, they sound like a father or a teacher using the words just to make sure he still knows them. That makes him old, and that makes me old.

It also suggests the gulf, that gap between who we were certain we would be, and who we have instead become. I feel this everyday. I imagine Jamie does too—how could he not?—but probably doesn’t expect me to feel it.

Of this I’m certain: the real differences between us are negligible, though we appear to represent two entirely different approaches to living. While he struggles to keep ahead of the lawn, the kids, the sagging eaves, the minivan’s oil changes, I come away looking collected, together. My black suits with their clean lines, my well-paying position with Witt-DeKalb Investments, my tidy, airy apartment near Lincoln Park in Chicago, and the exotic restaurants I dine at, they all speak to something nearly opposite to Jim’s life here in Blue Mound, if lives may be reduced to such geometries. But the truth is that I have kept things small, manageable, in order to maintain the illusion of control. Jim has allowed himself no such luxury. We want the same things, finally. We want the same woman, too; or at least we once did. I don’t precisely know where Jim stands on that issue these days. He is on the surface of things content with his duplicitous arrangement. Brenda Canty satisfies certain doubts he would otherwise harbor about himself, and she demands very little of him. A few hours carved from the corpus of his week, and the occasional nice dinner someplace dark where he won’t be seen by anyone who knows better, maybe in Springfield, if he can find the time. Though perky and friendly, Brenda is frankly not the woman Janet is, but I suppose that’s largely the point.

• • •

At the giant hardware store a pretty, yellow, corn-fed girl rings up our sale, pointing a wireless scanner at the tags on the ends of the pieces of lumber, the brackets, the boxes of nails, the spackle and the drywall patch kit, until the little unit beeps. When she’s not using her hands she tucks them into her canvas apron. She announces the total, and it causes me to glance at the small digital screen atop the register to confirm I’ve heard right. Jim, unblinking, slaps his credit card down on the counter. “Put that right on there,” he says.

We wheel the orange cart full of lumber and supplies out into the parking lot and begin to load the van, piling the 8-foot boards atop the folded-down benches and right up between the driver and passenger seats. The tension that was present in the van before we went into the store has been replaced by a breezy feeling. An easy give and take, an attitude like, fuck it, it’s the Memorial Day weekend, and the sun is out in America. Our afternoon promises hammers and power tools and cold beer. I’ll get a burn on my forearms. There will be barbecued hamburgers. The kids will climb trees. There is an obvious difference of opinions in the van about the Brenda thing, but we’re not about to solve it, so we just leave it alone. Jamie starts up the van, pops out the CD and turns on the radio. There’s a ballgame on.

Jamie’s loyalty to the Royals, here in the thick of Cubs and, to a lesser degree, White Sox territory, is no fluke. We were both born in Kansas City, but our father moved us up to Illinois so that he could manage a wholesale feed and seed outfit when I was six and Jamie was ten. Jamie can remember watching George Brett play, whereas I didn’t form any sort of allegiance until later, once we were already up here, so by that time it was Ryne Sandberg and the Cubs for me. It still is the Cubs, which marks me either a romantic or a fool. Take your pick.

• • •

It must be a hundred degrees under the midday sun by the time we have the old porch stripped down and ready for rebuilding.

“Christ, is it Miller time yet?” Jamie asks while hunched over a pair of sawhorses with a pencil in one hand and a tape measure in the other. The sweat pours over our faces, soaks through our shirts. Janet appears every now and then with a pitcher of ice water, then disappears again to the back yard where she’s busy in the garden.

By four-thirty we have a new frame built, a lattice of two-by-fours strung between the four-by-fours we have carriage-bolted to the old posts, having decided that digging new postholes and pouring cement will make the job something bigger than we can reasonably expect to finish in two-and-a-half days. The old posts will do. We set the new ones to level and bolt them in place, then prepare to build our frame off that.

• • •

The burgers are juicy and the beer cold as the early evening sun slants through the poplars. Voices float on the hot wind; it sounds as though the neighbors are having a barbecue, too. Children laugh and shout. The crickets start to chime in, like a ringing in the ears. Janet works the grill, making cheeseburgers with fried onions on toasted buns. The potato salad is rich with red onion and real mayo. The ice in the beer cooler has all melted. My face is hot with sunburn. Somewhere a lawnmower whirs.

I can feel it in my muscles and my bones: there will be no rooftop sitting this night. Jamie’s been hitting the beer hard since we called it a day and packed the tools and lumber into the garage. Now he’s slumped low in his plastic deck chair, his face red and his eyelids heavy. The kids all but mind themselves, spraying each other with the hose and splashing in the wading pool, which is full of water beneath a layer of grass clippings. Angela laughs; Robbie, ruddy and sodden, screams.

The longest shadows have reached the other side of the yard when Janet stands up, finishes the last of her beer and tells the kids to pack up their pool noodles; it’s time to get ready for bed. They moan, offer protest, and many minutes later follow her inside. The patio door closes behind them with a soft whoosh.

Jamie and I sit together in silence for a moment. He sighs deeply. “God, she’s something, isn’t she?” he asks cryptically.

The last of a spectacular sunset sweetens the western sky as he stands and picks up the cooler, retrieves the last four cans of Bud from the icy water, and dumps the rest of the contents off the side of the patio.

“I’m bound for bed, brother,” he says, teetering before the sliding door. “You good?” he asks.

“Yeah, I’m good. You sleep well,” I say. “Back at it tomorrow.”

“Yessir,” he says, saluting. “Goodnight.” He is off into the darkened house. I hear him walking past the bathroom where Janet is getting Robbie and Angela cleaned up for bed. I begin to gather condiments, glasses and plates from the patio table. Angela appears behind the screen of the patio door in a long pink nightgown with large-headed princesses on it.

“Good night, Uncle Richie,” she says.

“Come here and gimme a hug before bed, Angie.” She slides open the door and pads across the deck into my waiting arms, and sinks in to me. She smells of soap bubbles. She has her mother’s dark hair.

“Sleep well, sweet Angie,” I say. She rubs her eyes, turns, and tiptoes away.

• • •

Her children and husband safely tucked away, Janet sits at the table in the darkened kitchen, a dishtowel thrown over her left shoulder, a sweating can of beer in front of her. I stand leaning against the dishwasher. We are alone. She asks if I want a last beer, and I gratefully accept. It’s the first time I’ve been alone with her this weekend. She looks tired. She stands, walks to the fridge and gets me a tallboy.

“Shoot, I could’ve gotten that, Jan,” I say. The window over the sink is open and a cool breeze wafts through. Clouds have rolled in, blotting the stars. It has begun to rain softly, a cool, light shower on everything that sounds like faint hissing from where I stand. It will be gone by morning, I know, and the sun will roll back out, burning off the dampness. Jamie and I will be back at it by midmorning, hammering and sawing, measuring and cutting the decking boards, the long, straight pieces of pressure treated lumber that will mutely witness whatever does or does not happen to this family over the coming months and years. Janet will carry groceries over them. Robbie will skin his knees on them. Angela will escort friends across them. What will my brother do?

Janet is tired. I want to tell her everything I know about Jim and Brenda.

“My god, those kids of yours have grown,” I say.

“Like bad weeds,” she says, then smiles. “But they’re good kids.” We stand side by side in the kitchen and outside the rain falls. Janet’s shoulders drop and she rubs the back of her neck with a rough hand, her nails still blackened with garden soil. She sighs. In the dim light of the bulb in the range hood I notice the tiny lines beginning to creep outward from the corners of her eyes. “Robbie told me the other day that he wanted to play basketball when he’s older,” she says. I think of Brenda Canty and imagine both women in the bleachers of a gymnasium, cheering Robbie on as he stands at the free throw line, neither aware of the other in the buzzing, yellowy light.

“Hope he’s better than his dad was,” I say.

She looks down at the linoleum tile, then gives herself a little hug, her arms folded across her stomach. I’m still looking at Janet’s face, and I can’t bring myself to speak. Maybe there was a time when I’d have moved in and held her now, consoled her from a sadness she doesn’t quite realize she ought to be feeling. But that’s not the way we live now.

Truth is I don’t even know what I’d say. Jesus Christ, I think to myself, he’s my brother. Janet pushes herself away from the counter and stands straight, pulls her shoulders back to work out an ache. She looks at me.

“You got what you need, Richie?”

“I guess I do,” I say.

“Alright then,” she says, then slaps the dishtowel down on the counter and turns off the light over the stove. “I’m off to bed. Jim’ll wonder where I’m at.” Then she moves silently down the hall and into the bedroom.


Andrew Forbes’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Feathertale Review, Found Press, PRISM International, The New Quarterly, Scrivener Creative Review, This Magazine, Hobart, The Puritan, All Lit Up, The Classical, Vice Sports, and Hazlitt, and has been nominated for The Journey Prize. His story collection, What You Need, will be available April, 2015 from Invisible Publishing. He lives in Peterborough, Ontario.

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LF #048 © Andrew Forbes. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, August 2013. Image from The Noun Project.


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what you need

by Andrew Forbes