I didn’t answer the phone when my brother, Toby, called. His name appeared on the screen of my cell like a bad biopsy result, and instead of answering, I threw back another slug of beer and returned my attention to the television set. The sitcom wasn’t particularly interesting, nor was the company of my wife, who’d already decided our marriage was unsalvageable, though it would be another month before she let me in on the fact. She sat on the sofa, frowning. I didn’t bother to ask what was wrong. By that point, unhappy had become a default setting her face hit whenever we shared space, so I barely acknowledged it. What are you going to do? Shit happens, and when enough shit happens, you go Pavlovian. Talking to my wife hurt, so I stopped talking to her. I treated my brother with a similar, perhaps greater, level of avoidance. His phone calls invariably included an ample portion of four-alarm crazy and a request for cash. Since I had the routing information for his bank account, I could send him money. Why not cut out the miserable attempts at conversation and the grief?
When the phone rang again three minutes later, my wife climbed off the sofa and left the room. I closed my eyes and waited for the ringing to stop. If it was important—and it was always important to Toby—he could leave a message. I figured God had created voice mail for just such occasions.
So many months later, as the anniversary of that day bears down, I know I should have answered the phone. I get that now. Sometimes when a boy cries wolf, there really are teeth at his neck, but how was I supposed to know? I’d come to think of Toby’s head as a scalding pot, and I’d learned to keep my fingers away from it.
Once upon a time, Toby was the golden boy, the Prince of Barnard, Texas. I wish I could ask what happened to him and wonder on the question with genuine naiveté. But I know what happened. The cause. The effect. The whole of it was as clear as an image beaming through a polished projector lens.
• • • •
Sundays are for church and fried chicken. I sit at the dinner table with Daddy, and I’m thinking about the morning sermon. The story of Lot’s wife remains vivid and horrible, and I try to imagine what it must feel like to have every speck of my body turned to grains of salt. I see the ceramic saltshaker in the middle of the table. It is in the shape of a white hen with a pink bow, the wife of the peppershaker rooster. And I wonder if I became a pillar of salt, would people—maybe my own parents—shave bits of me off to fill their shakers so I could flavor food?
My father smokes a cigarette before the meal and asks me if I’ve finished all of my weekend homework, and I lie and say, “Yes, sir,” and then Toby, who is fifteen years old, opens the kitchen door and stands on the porch, wiping dust from the seat of his Lee jeans. His shirt is torn at the shoulder. Patches of dirt cover his knees and shins. Mussed hair juts away from his scalp in haphazard clumps. A bruise blossoms on his jaw, and his left eye is already good and swollen. Though his appearance could be attributed to any number of accidents, I believe he has been in a fight.
A yelp of distress flies from my mother’s lips, and she rushes to the door. Slowly, my father rises from his chair and crosses the room to join her.
Frightened by Toby’s face, shocked by the damage, I find myself more upset to think that someone would dare strike him. Besides being taller than most boys his age, Toby is an athlete, a star on the baseball diamond and the football field. Thick muscles cover his arms and legs; he has our daddy’s build. And even without such physical attributes, Toby would have made an unlikely target, because people liked him. He didn’t bully or shove or insult any of his classmates the way the other football players did. What kind of fool had the nerve to lay fists on him?
Then the phone rings, and Toby’s eyes open wide, and fear simmers in those eyes. I’ve never seen my brother afraid before, except for the pretend fear he acted out when we were little kids, playing Cops and Robbers. Mama remains with Toby, fussing and tutting and asking him what happened. Daddy leaves the doorway and goes to answer the phone.
• • • •
As children, Cops and Robbers was our favorite game, and Toby always played the hero. The games would begin with me mortally wounded, dying in my brother’s arms and Toby vowing revenge against some “motherless cur”—a phrase he’d picked up from an old movie.
Then after a spluttering death, worthy of a Shakespearean royal, I would resurrect as said cur and we’d spend an hour running around the backyard jabbing our plastic guns at each other and saying, “pow,” and “bang,” and “eat lead.” It was common. Normal. A cliché enacted by kids all over the world.
It made sense that Toby would play the hero. Not only was he two and half years older than me, he also embodied the term. He was just plain good at everything. Give him a baseball bat, or a math equation, or a guitar and he would figure out how to make them work. People called him “Brilliant,” “Amazing,” and “Genius.” His best friend, Duke Manheim, used to call Toby, “Flat-out Impossible,” with a tone that revealed the awestruck depths of his admiration. The last few times I visited Toby, he could no longer hold a cigarette between his fingers; they trembled too badly. Instead, he pinched the filter between his teeth and sucked them down in a few desperate puffs.
• • • •
Daddy answers the phone and at first he smiles. “Hey there, Rick,” he says, and I know it’s Mr. Manheim, Duke’s father and one of Daddy’s best friends. The call does not interest me as much as my brother’s condition, so I return my attention to Toby, who finishes wiping the dirt from himself and insists Mama leave him be as he steps into the house. Instead of remaining in the kitchen, Toby creeps out of the room without a word. No, “Hey, kid,” or “Hey, squirt,” for me.
I look to Mama for an explanation, but the concern and confusion on her face matches the gray swirl of chaos in my head. She wipes her hands on her apron and turns to Daddy. I follow her gaze and am surprised to see the expression on my father’s suddenly red face. I can’t tell if he’s about to scream or vomit. He notices us gawking at him and pulls the phone away from his ear.
“Betty, take Peter on out of here.” His voice is so quiet and dry, it whispers like a desert breeze. Mama opens her mouth with a question, but the words die on her tongue. “Just go on now,” he says. “Be sure to get that chicken off the burner. We don’t want it scorched.”
• • • •
The phone rang again. I switched the device to vibrate and then stood and passed through the kitchen on the way to my workbench in the garage. Its gouged wooden top was bare—no toys or toasters or bikes needed my attention. The rows of tools on the pegboard were little more than decorative these days. I hadn’t had a new project on my bench since my daughter, Jocelyn, had gone off to college.
Above the bench was a small board with a number of keys, each one hung on a hook beneath a neatly printed label. I lifted the set that opened the doors to my parents’ house—Toby’s house now—and slid them in my pocket. Then I leaned on the bench and tried to remember the last thing I’d fixed there. The lamp from Jocelyn’s room? My old ten-speed? I couldn’t be certain.
I’d picked up the tinkering bug from my father, and though a good deal of his talent had been lost in the genetic translation that was me, I managed to fix most of the household items that landed on my bench. My father, however, had been truly gifted in this regard. He could repair just about anything, spot the failure in a second flat, and once he identified the problem, he set to fixing it. His days were spent selling heavy equipment at the John Deere facility in Barnard, but on the nights he wasn’t bowling at the Longhorn Lanes or swapping stories at the VFW hall, he mended, repaired, and even invented. He was the master of broken things. Everything could be fixed, could be improved.
• • • •
Mama escorts me to the door of the bedroom I share with my older brother and tells me to wait inside while she goes to talk with my father. Toby lies on the bed, staring at the ceiling.
He doesn’t look at me when I enter.
“You were in a fight?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer. Instead he crosses his arms over his eyes, and I wonder if he’s crying. On the shelves above his bed sit his shining trophies—for bowling and basketball, for baseball and football. Thirteen of them. I know because I’ve counted them a hundred times. My shelves hold books and a single award: a tiny third place trophy for peewee football that has sat without a companion for five years.
“Who’d ya fight with?”
“Duke.” Toby croaks the word but there are no signs my brother is crying, and that reassures me.
“Duke is your best pal,” I say, confused.
“No he’s not.” Toby rolls onto his side, facing away from me.
I know the wounds on his jaw and eye are pressed into the pillow and they must ache, but he doesn’t roll back toward me. He doesn’t move. I continue to ask questions, but he won’t reply, and I persist and I pester, because nothing makes sense to me. Folks admire Toby, they celebrate him, and the only people who weren’t his friends were the ones too intimidated to get close, so why had Duke Manheim thrown fists at my brother? At the boy he himself had proclaimed, “Flat-out Impossible”?
The door opens and Daddy steps inside. He crosses his arms, gazing at me without so much as a glance for my brother.
“You go on down and eat your supper,” he says. “I need a word with Toby.”
“What did Mr. Manheim say?” I ask.
“Never you mind about that.”
And I know it’s bad. I can tell by the frown on my father’s face. Whatever Duke’s father told him was hateful and wrong, but it was more than that. “He lied,” I say, though I have no idea what was actually said. My only instinct is to defend my brother from the motherless cur’s accusations. “You know he did. Toby didn’t do nothing wrong. Duke’s a liar and Mr. Manheim’s a liar and that’s all there is to it.”
“Go eat your supper, Peter,” is my father’s quiet response.
• • • •
I stretched out on the sofa and listened to my brother’s messages. Each word stung like needles passing through my chest, and after listening to the last message—“The machine still works, Petey. It still works.” —it felt as if a surgeon were yanking the sutures tight, pulling my ribs together so that my heart had no room to beat.
How could my father have built that thing? He wasn’t a bad man, ask anyone. Nearly a hundred people had attended his funeral, and all of them spoke of his kindness, his humor, his helpfulness. He was a Christian, but quietly so, never waving his Bible, never wielding scripture like a weapon. As a father, he was evenhanded and warm. He believed in the belt; he used it infrequently but with great seriousness.
Lying on the sofa, looking at the ceiling and through it, imagining my wife in bed, turned to the wall the way Toby had been turned away, I remembered the sound of my father’s belt cracking across my brother’s backside as tears fell from my cheeks—more salt for the fried chicken on my plate. My mother said nothing. She ate nothing, merely pushed a fork through her potatoes, creating trenches as if preparing soil for planting.
“Your brother is going to be staying in the workshop for a time,” my father says.
I don’t understand. “What did he do?”
“He’ll be staying in the workshop for a time,” my father says as if I hadn’t heard him. “Go fetch my army cot from the attic and take it down to the kitchen. Then your mother will take you into town for a cone and a coke.”
I grew restless on the sofa. The past and present fell on me like blankets of fiberglass, scratchy and insulating, keeping things in that I’d rather expel. I stood. In the kitchen, I took a beer from the fridge. With my tongue and throat soothed, I sat on a barstool at the kitchen island and traced the lines of grout that formed gutters in the tiled countertop. My finger pushed against a pile of mail, scooting the low stack toward the counter’s edge.
No one said a word about what my brother had done. At the Dairy Queen, my mother revealed nothing about what she knew, if in fact she knew anything. It was very possible my father hadn’t shared what Rick Manheim had said with her. You didn’t talk about the bad things, and the worse a thing was, the quieter you kept it. It was a practice everyone in Barnard seemed to ascribe to. At school the next day and the day after that, I noticed no changes in the way my schoolmates behaved around me, no whispers of scandal, no sidelong glances of pity or disgust. If Duke Manheim had said anything to his buddies at Beall’s High, it had yet to filter down to McNeil Middle School. Whatever had occurred between my brother and Duke was terrible enough that neither they nor their fathers would let the information escape.
As a kid, I wasn’t equipped to think in broad terms, so my speculations were laughable. I imagined Toby had called Duke a bad name or maybe he’d stolen one of his friend’s toys or record albums.
Again, I nudged the stack of mail. A bill lay on top of the pile; it was from Willow House, where Toby lived, had lived for the past eight years. I found it comforting such institutions no longer called themselves asylums.
The beefsteak is tough and the potatoes have been boiled too long and decompose into mush beneath my fork and nothing has flavor no matter how much salt I add. My father sits on my right and smokes a cigarette. His eyes are like Toby’s—red and dull. He looks as if he’s been awake since Sunday afternoon, since Mr. Manheim’s phone call. My mother chats throughout the meal, talking about Mrs. Burlingson’s crop of squash and raspberries, and Mrs. Turred’s lousy washing machine flooding her basement again, and how Mr. Evans at the grocery told her that he’d caught the Perry boy trying to pilfer candies from the rack by the register. She babbles on and on. It seems she speaks about every family in Barnard except ours. As she clears the dishes, my father stubs out his cigarette and immediately lights another.
“I’m driving on up to Dallas,” he says through a cloud of blue-gray smoke.
My mother halts as if someone has put a gun to her back. “The dealership sending you?” she asks.
“I’ll be heading out here shortly,” he says, not answering her question. “I’ll try to be back by supper tomorrow, but no need to wait on me. I’ll call if things take longer than expected.”
Mama continues on to the sink and gently places the dinner plates in it.
“That’s fine,” she says. “We’re having hot dogs and beans. They’ll keep well enough.”
I finished my beer, rinsed the bottle, and placed it in the recycling bin. With my ass propped against the counter, I listened to Toby’s messages again with the same ache and constriction in my chest. Though very late, after two in the morning, I decided to call him back, but he didn’t answer. I left a message so thick with false enthusiasm at hearing from him, I felt ashamed. The performance was as pitifully overblown as my childhood death scenes.
Granted, at that point my brother was no longer able to detect such variances in vocal patterns. He heard what he wanted to hear and inferred the emotions he expected. Oddly enough, in many other ways, his condition had improved. His paranoia and the violent outbursts it caused had lessened considerably, and I was grateful for that. Still, they shouldn’t have let him out of the home, not without supervision. A guy like my brother couldn’t care for himself, not for long, not for days and nights at a time.
After Daddy leaves for Dallas, I ask Mama why Toby has to stay outside, and she tells me that Daddy thinks it is best. I persist, because as always, I’m told nothing.
“Don’t worry so much about this. Your brother is going to be fine, Petey, just fine. Your father is taking care of him.”
I note the oddity of her comment. She speaks as if Toby is sick or injured, rather than being punished for whatever had caused his fight with Duke Manheim. My confusion grows and feeds my frustration, but my mother deflects my questions, tuts them away, smiles at me as if humoring a feeb. After a time, I become convinced she doesn’t know what’s wrong with Toby. I can tell by the confusion in her eyes and the way she smoothes her hair and the way she smiles, which isn’t really a smile at all, and I know that asking her questions is pointless.
My mother accepted my father’s silences with the same gravity she’d accepted every word he’d ever spoken. As a boy, I’d thought she had as many answers as my father, an equal on the plain of adulthood with her husband, but that wasn’t the case at all. She wasn’t a partner quite so much as an appendage, a utensil, an appliance with a good nature and a pleasant face. It wasn’t until my father died that I understood the depth of her dependence on the man. Without my father, she turned to me for answers, looked to me to make her decisions. Should I sell the house, Petey? Should I move in with your Aunt Ruby and Uncle Lou? Isn’t it better if I don’t go to the hospital? My visits always upset Toby so. If you think I should, I will, but . . .
I called Willow House’s emergency number, but it went directly to voice mail. Once the tone sounded, I let them know that Toby had slipped out again. I asked that they not involve the authorities, though I know they are bound by law to do so. Leaving my number, I hung up and dug in my pocket for the keys I’d taken from the hook in the garage.
Then I leave the house. In my car, I consider leaving Toby to the professionals at Willow House. All I had to do was call them back and give them the address. There was only one place he could be.
“The machine still works, Petey. It still works.”
It’s Friday, and I’m walking up the dirt drive to my house. The dust is thick and joins the pollen and both fill the air creating a golden filter for the afternoon sun, which hangs, glaring over the roof. The door to my father’s workshop is open, and I see Toby inside. He is holding a small bucket and a brush, and he’s covering the window in the door with black paint. He is concentrating on the task, lining up his brush carefully before touching it to the pane and sweeping it across the glass. He is so absorbed in the task that my arrival at the door surprises him.
He flinches and steps back and then his posture relaxes. “Hey, squirt,” he says, and the familiarity, the normality of the greeting refreshes like a gulp of sweet tea.
“Hey,” I reply. “Whatcha doing?”
“Painting,” he says.
“That’s what it looks like,” he says.
I notice something is missing from my brother’s eyes. They are red and the lids are heavy and a dull cast covers them.
“It’s a project I’m working on with Daddy,” he says. He seems unsure of the words, and he gazes at the concrete floor of the workshop and then back at the black band he has painted on the glass. “It’s a secret.”
“Are you gonna come back inside?” I ask.
“Not for a while,” Toby says. He dips the brush into the bucket and stirs the black paint gravely.
“Why not?” I’m desperate for information, and even though I see my brother pulling into his thoughts, moving away from me as surely as if he were being dragged behind a speeding truck, I persist. “What happened? What did you do?”
“You better go on inside, now,” he says.
I look past him into my father’s shop. The space was always off limits to us unless we had permission from our father to enter it for a tool or a can of oil. It is large, a converted two-car garage. The floor is clean and cleared except for the army cot, which Toby has made up neatly with sheets and a blanket. The workbenches form a large L in the far corner, and they are similarly devoid of clutter. Neatly organized shelves run floor to ceiling on the right just beyond the cot.
Switching tack I ask, “Can I help?”
Like my father, Toby responds as if I’ve said nothing at all. “You better go on inside.”
Then he scrapes his brush along the side of the paint can and presses its bristles to the window. With his customary precision, he coats the glass from frame to frame without getting a speck of paint on the trim.
• • • •
It is the middle of the night and I can’t sleep. I’m still not used to having the room to myself. Toby’s absence is a hole I fear I’ll be dragged into. I leave my bed and go to the window and stare down on Daddy’s workshop, and the dark building with its black windows makes me think of a haunted house, and I think my brother is the phantom prowling it. Daddy’s truck is parked only a few feet from the door. He’s back from Dallas. I don’t remember having heard him come home.
After I tire of looking at the workshop, I leave the window and then leave my room and wander down the hall to the stairs. Though I’ve made no conscious decision about where I’m going, I creep downstairs and detect a muffled clicking sound that draws me to the kitchen. Daddy sits at the table under the cone of light falling from the hanging brass fixture, bent over a box with a number of colored wires snaking from its side. A brown paper bag rests to his left. Next to this is the slide projector Mama bought at the flea market in Bastrop. She’d never used it so far as I knew, but she’d been very proud of “the deal” she’d found at the time, and I wonder why Daddy has scavenged the device from the hall closet.
He looks up and fixes grim eyes on me. The overhead light casts shadows down his face, and the dark patches beneath his eyes and chin, and the lines around his mouth look like blotches of rot. A stricken quality passes over his face, and he blinks, and I wonder if he recognizes me at all. He puts down his screwdriver and rubs his eyes and I again think he looks as if he hasn’t slept since Mr. Mannheim’s call all those days ago. His hair is greasy and flat and the skin on his face hangs as if the muscles beneath have relinquished their grasp.
“Peter,” he says quietly. He reaches out and lifts the brown paper bag from the tabletop and lowers it to the floor beside his feet. “You shouldn’t be up.”
“Did you have a good trip to Dallas?”
“Fine,” he says dryly.
I think to ask if he’s found anything that will help Toby, but the expression on his face, empty of all but flickers of life, warns me away from the question. So I stand there silently, following the trajectory of the wires poking from the metal box before him, and I look back to the slide projector sitting like a turtle near the edge of the table, and I take in the spools of wire and the cutters and a box with the word rheostat stenciled across its oatmeal-colored cardboard box.
“You should be in bed,” he says.
“Maybe I could help.”
“Get your ass to bed, Peter!”
• • • •
The following day, I see neither Daddy nor Toby, but when I’m outside playing in the yard, kicking a ball across the scrub grass and dirt, I hear evidence of their presence in the workshop. Whispers. The clicking of tools. At one point, I kick my ball toward the back wall of the workshop and press my ear close to the blackened window. The glass muffles Daddy’s voice, but I recognize his tone, and I realize he is doing all of the talking. I want to hear the words but they are garbled and incomprehensible, like prayers spoken under water.
I imagine my father and brother hunched over the slide projector and various electrical wires and components. Daddy might be pointing at a device and a wire and explaining why the two must be joined in a specific way, and I think Toby is lucky to be spending so much time with Daddy. A tickle of jealousy joins my curiosity, and for a time I forget that Toby is being punished, or that he’s not well. I still don’t understand his condition, but I know I want to join them in the workshop, to be part of the project. Resting my foot on the red ball, I look around the yard, searching for an excuse to knock on the workshop door. But instead of finding a magic key that will justify my intrusion, I see Mama standing at the corner of the house. Her arms are crossed, and she frowns at me.
Later that night, I’m watching television. It is near my bedtime. Mama has given me a plate of two cookies and a small glass of milk to enjoy while Carol Burnett and her co-stars stumble and mug for the camera.
Just as a skit is about to end, the lights in my house dim and the television screen goes green-black in a hiccup of electric current. I think little of it. Such hiccups are common during storms or high winds. But it isn’t storming, and I hear no gusts in the eaves. A roar of laughter, harsh and mocking, pours from the television when it comes back on, and I feel a chill. A minute later, the lights flicker off again.
• • • •
Vast stretches of darkness gave way to the occasional streetlamp. Driving toward my childhood home, I attempted to shake off the memories, hoping to loosen the tightness in my chest, but the program in my head was nearing an end, and I didn’t have a switch to turn it off, not even a rheostat to adjust its power.
What I remembered clearly was that things in our house seemed to return to normal after the night of the flickering lights. The next morning, I found Toby at the breakfast table. He appeared exhausted and confused, but his fatigue didn’t seem quite so dire. He wore a clean white t-shirt and a baseball cap, which he’d pulled low on his brow. Mama had fixed pancakes and bacon, and Toby tore through them. My father joined us. Unlike Toby, he barely ate. His exhaustion remained, and he smoked cigarettes through the meal, blowing smoke onto his plate, as if in a trance.
Nothing was said about Toby or the workshop or what they had constructed within it, but apparently the experiment had done some good, because for the first time in a week, Toby slept in our room. He went to school on Monday, and when he came home he let himself into the workshop, where he would stay for an hour. And then supper. And then to bed. The spark in his eyes had not returned, and he wore his baseball cap everywhere, somehow eluding Mama’s rule about hats at the dining table, which also distressed me because it wasn’t usual, but he was back in the house and things had reached a level of normality. And I started to believe the darkness that had tarnished our golden boy was finally being wiped away.
A week before Christmas, my father had his first aneurism. It didn’t kill him, that would take six more years and two more “cerebral events,” but that night, he died some in my eyes, because I saw what he’d built. I discovered his answer to my brother’s troubles.
• • • •
After my mother’s tears and my father’s expression of perplexed misery, and after the paramedics and the ambulance, and after the red lights vanish over the hill and the front door closes behind me, I trudge to the sofa and fall onto it. Toby is already there, staring at the television; both his face and the appliance screen are dark.
“Do you think Daddy’s going to die, Toby?”
“No,” he snaps. His gaze doesn’t wander from the blank-glass nothing of the TV. “He can’t.”
“He looked real bad.”
“He’s a great man, Petey. He’s strong. He’ll be okay.”
And I know Toby is not stating a fact; he is voicing a wish.
“But what if he’s not?” I ask.
“Shut up, Petey,” Toby says. His command scalds me into silence and I lower my head because I can’t look at him anymore. We’re silent for a time before he says, “Go on up to bed. I’ve got things to do.”
• • • •
I do as I am told and I lay in bed, but my eyes are open, and I’m angry at Toby for dismissing me. Abandoning me. The house still stinks of the fish Mama fried for supper. My pillow is as hard as stone and the pillowcase feels scratchy and hot on my neck. My thoughts crackle and pop like damp kindling. I don’t understand how my family could crumble, just fall apart like a dirt wall in a hard wind. I don’t understand because no one has told me anything that sounds true. Toby will be okay. Daddy will be okay. But how can anyone know that? They can’t, is the answer, but I’m supposed to accept the meaningless phrases as gospel?
Daddy is in the shadows staining my ceiling, and Toby is there, too. They are strangers to me.
I leave the bed and cross to the window and look down on the workshop, and I know Toby is there, and I decide I deserve to know what is happening. So, I walk out of the room, down the stairs, and out the front door, and I cross the walk to the dirt drive and I stare at the workshop door. Toby has done an excellent job and the windows are impenetrably black, but there is a narrow crack beneath the door and I see it is filled with gray light. The light remains for twenty seconds and then goes out, only to reignite after a single beat of my heart. I reach out for the doorknob and pause. The light goes out again; it returns.
Holding my breath, I turn the knob and push the door open. Initially a glaring disc beaming from across the room blinds me. The odors of the place—oil, sawdust, and sour sweat—burrow into my nostrils. A dull hum fills my ears. I lift my hand to shield my eyes from the light and it goes out, but a fog of green covers my vision the way it does after a camera’s flash. I close my eyes and the swirling murk remains. The lamp ignites again and before I open my eyes, I turn away.
I am aware of the shelves on the right side of the workshop and that something—One of Mama’s sheets?—hangs against the nearest wall. But my gaze lands on my brother and fills with the sight of him.
Toby lies on his cot. He has pushed his hands through leather straps affixed to the metal frame, and they are knotted into fists. His eyes are wide and he’s shaking his head frantically. There is something on his head. It is a small cap with metal arms that reach out to press against his temples. Rubber tubing hangs from these shiny appendages and drape the sides of his face where they connect to a wooden dowel wrapped in gauze. Toby clamps the dowel between his teeth like a horse bit. He struggles to get his hands free of the leather straps when the light goes out again.
It comes back on with a click, and the dull hum returns. Toby’s back arches and his body goes rigid. His eyes are rolled back and white, and lines of tendon and vein appear on his neck as if he’s swallowed a vine plant that is trying to push its way through his skin.
I scream. It does nothing to lessen my dread. I shout my brother’s name but he is paralyzed. I step forward and then back up and then forward again. The light dies, and the humming stops, and I turn toward the bench at the back of the room. When the light comes back on, the apparatus atop the wooden surface comes clear. A plug juts from the wall socket; a white cord runs to a junction box, topped by the black knob of the rheostat; two wires, one black and one blue, run like tentacles from the metal box to the cap on my brother’s head; another cord, this one yellow, snakes to the slide projector. I can only think of the display as a torture device, imagined and built by my father. But what was it meant to accomplish? I spin toward the image projected on the wall of the workshop and my breath lodges against the stone in my throat. A young woman stands naked in a field, holding a flower to her nose. Her hair, the color of corn silk, frames her beautiful face. She smiles softly. Sweetly. My gaze traces down her throat to her small round breasts and then over her belly to the mound of golden blonde hair between her legs, and then back up again. The room goes black. The picture of the young woman is replaced by that of a muscled man with a dense pelt of hair covering his chest. Beneath his thick mustache, his mouth is twisted into a smirk. He is also naked and his hand grasps the shaft of his penis like the hilt of a knife.
The hum has returned to the workshop. Toby is again arched and rigid. And my confusion is momentarily erased as if I understand this perverse experiment, though I’m certain I do not. It seems that Toby is relaxed when pictures of women cover my mama’s bed sheet, but voltage and pain accompanies the images of men. I don’t know what this is meant to achieve, but I know it has to stop.
I reach across the workbench. Doing so, I lean over the rheostat and notice the switches and the dial on top. Dashes and numbers run in an arc to accommodate the round black knob. Someone, either Daddy or Toby, has run a strip of black electrical tape like a comic eyebrow, blocking out the lines and numbers on the downside of the arc, and above this, written in red ink, is the word Danger. I yank the plug from the wall. Despite the pitch darkness I find my way to the light switch on the other side of the shop and flick it on, and then I turn to my brother, who has managed to get one of his hands loose. He frees his other hand, reaches for the bit in his mouth and pulls it away all the while glaring at me.
“Y-you c-can’t be in here, Petey,” he says. His voice is dry, and he growls savagely to clear his throat.
Only when I try to answer do I realize that I’m crying, and I can’t find my voice. Toby removes the device from his head and I see the red marks at his temples, and I know they’re the reason he wears his baseball cap in the house, and the sight of them makes me cry harder.
“It’s okay,” he says. With a tremendous effort, he sits up on the cot and swings his legs off the side. “I’m okay.”
“No. No. No.” I blubber.
“You’re too young to understand,” Toby says, wiping at his mouth with the back of his hand. “I wasn’t right, Petey. I felt things and did things . . .” His voice trails away. A mask of confusion falls over his face like the darkness between the projector’s light. When it passes he says, “Daddy read all about it. He found books in Dallas. He found out what was wrong with me and how to fix it. He had to do something or else he’d have to send me away to an asylum and people would know about me, and they can’t know about me. They just can’t. Do you want me to go to an asylum, Petey?”
“It’s not right,” I say between sobs. “It’s hurting you.”
“It has to,” Toby says. His head dips and he observes the floor for a moment. When he looks back at me, the spark I’ve missed in his eyes has returned, except the light there is hard and cold. A hint of a smile touches the corners of his lips. His expression is hopeful but it’s also frightening, because, to me, Toby looks crazy. And when he speaks again, I feel certain his mind has come loose, because he says, “It’s working, Petey. I’m getting better. Really I am.”
• • • •
I pulled into the drive of Toby’s house. My car’s headlights swept across the front of the shed like a lighthouse beacon. Black paint still covered the windows. A grey light showed beneath the door and then extinguished. Remaining in the parked car, I peered at the shed with trepidation. I’d thought the machine was gone, dismantled, torn apart, and thrown in the trash. That’s what Toby had told me; he’d said it was the first thing to go when he moved in after our mother’s death. His lie shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
Over the years, bits of information came my way. I learned that Toby had made a sexual advance toward his buddy, Duke, which had triggered the fight and the call from Richard Manheim. Of course I’d already figured that out, but Duke himself confirmed it years later. We ran into each other at a bar in Austin, and we got to talking about Toby. He felt bad for my brother. Such a shame, he’d said. Such a waste.
The grey light flashed and I counted to twenty and then it went dark. Leaving the car, I breathed deeply to calm my sparking nerves. The scene inside the shed would be familiar, I knew, but that didn’t make it any more palatable.
In the years before leaving home, Toby had used our father’s device regularly. Some days he was the golden hero of my early youth, and other days he appeared crazy, eyes wild and mouth shimmering with spittle as he recounted one moral outrage or another. On those days, he went to the shed and wired himself to the apparatus, as if it were a meditative aid. He marched through the broiling gut of hell all the while insisting he was fine in the fire. I’m getting better. Really I am. I begged him to stop. My mother never said a word. My father never looked so proud.
It’s easy to blame the old man, but he thought he was helping. In college, I did some research of my own, investigating accepted “cures” of the day, and I found a number of references to electro-shock and aversion therapy. I’m sure this was the kind of information he came across during his trip to Dallas. His life was machines, and each part had to work in a particular way to keep the machine running. It would never occur to him that he didn’t understand a part or its function. Its value. My father wasn’t a villain; he was just a hick who wanted to save his son from a lifetime of sadness and shame—the only future he could imagine for a broken part in the social machine.
At the door to the shed, I lifted my fist and knocked. The gray light poured from beneath the door and then went out. When my second rap went unanswered, I pushed open the door. Toby lay on the cot. He was dead. He’d been gone for a while, maybe since hanging up after leaving me his last message.
The sight of him coiled in my throat along with the odors of urine, burned skin, and singed hair. Deep lines carved in around his mouth and brow; he hadn’t even bothered inserting the bit between his teeth. His eyes had poached in the sockets; blood and viscous tears clotted at his temples. He appeared to be smiling, but I had to believe it was the strained rictus of his final shock.
For a moment, I thought I could see the golden boy beneath the layers of weight and folds of skin, but it was only my mind playing tricks, an evanescent denial with no more weight than projected light. I choked on a sob and fought an urge to race to the cot, but a loud voice in the back of my head, reason or dread, warned me away from the coursing voltage. Instead of running to Toby’s side, I crossed the shed to disconnect the machine.
As I had done on the first night I’d witnessed my father’s therapy, I leaned over the rheostat to reach the wall plug. Toby had turned the rheostat to full power. The white dash on the black dial pointed at a peeling corner of tape and the letter E in the word Danger, written in red ink. The ink had faded.
The light went out and then returned with a shoosh and a click. A deadly hum filled the room. Foolishly, I glanced back at the screen. The image projected there froze me. It was of Toby and our father. The man, younger than I ever remembered him being, stood on a tractor in the parking lot of the John Deere facility. In one hand he held a rag and in the other he held a monstrous wrench. With one foot on the running board and the other on the tractor seat, he looked like a big game hunter, gloating over the carcass of an unfortunate trophy. Toby as a toddler stood on the pavement grinning up at his daddy, clapping his tiny hands together in a display of ecstatic joy.
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