Two Brothers from the Windy City

by Alexander Kemp

Bruce Flowers, Age 26  


     The bullet burst through her windshield, blouse, skin, and trachea, lodging into the superior lobe of her lung. The newspapers read my wife, Gwendoline Flowers, was killed by a stray bullet. At the funeral, right next to a large portrait of her, Pastor Jenkins preached that another life, which was young, gifted, and black, was stolen by a firearm. 

     Gwen, being 25, could have withstood the injury. The autopsy showed the resting spot of the bullet was non-fatal. The greatest extent of the damage would’ve been a collapsed lung, which any of my classmates at Northwestern can tell you is survivable if treated correctly. The bullet caused shock. I don’t mean surprise. Low blood flow in the circulatory system causes a lack of oxygen for the heart, brain and other organs. Shock can hinder your reflexes. That’s why Gwen drove into an oak tree. The car horn blared for 18 minutes, until the EMTs arrived. The impact of the crash mangled her legs and crushed her sternum.  My wife had a closed casket funeral.

     I specialize in treating autoimmune diseases. The last year of my residency is manageable. None of my co-workers at the hospital know about my widower status. No one gives me a sad-eyed glance when I’ve been silent too long. My co-workers, mostly white, don’t notice when someone black with my surname dies. Black and brown people showing up shot in the summer time is an hourly occurrence. To my co-workers, I’m the quiet Northwestern student, hiding behind a microscope, nothing more. I hope it stays that way.

     Tory, Gwen’s twin brother, visits once a week. One Sunday night we reflect on the first anniversary of Gwen’s death. We sit on the sofa in my studio apartment. He shares so many stories from his childhood with Gwen, so many different facets from her past that are new to me. The droopy expression on his overweight face reminds me of a dog that knows it’s going to be put down. Even so, I like Tory. I dislike having him around, too.

     “In the fifth grade,” Tory remembers, “in the middle of gym class, they were all pointing and laughing at me. I didn’t even want to touch the rope. That’s when Tyree yelled if I tried to climb it, my fat ass would b-bring the ceiling down.” Tory shrugs his big shoulders. “Everyone just l-laughed. It surrounded me. Next thing I know I had run out of the gym. My face was wet with tears.”I lean forward. “And that’s when my baby, at the young age of eleven, marched over to Tyree and smacked the shit out of him.” I’ve heard this story a couple times. “And was it two days she was suspended?”

     Tory smiles. “T-three whole d-days.” Tory’s speech impediment only rears its head when he becomes emotional. He stutters through the next few sentences. I give him time to breathe. The activity of his right hemisphere just needs to calm. 

     We conclude the night by sharing our favorite memories of Gwen. I’ve never revealed my best moment with her. The night Gwen visited my place for the first time. We kissed from sunset until midnight. Sliding her dress down to her ankles, I saw all of her in a new way. She dropped her guard and was vulnerable. She gave me the chance to reciprocate. And that night, for the first time in years, I was totally open, just for her.

     Two months later I’m at a decadent bachelor party for an old homie of mine. The effects of inebriation put a loose smile on my face. We jump like fools on the dance floor when that song we wait for plays. There are women, too. But I can’t recall where they come from. A friend yells my name and says it’s great seeing me live life again. This is true. I’m living life. 

     Later that night I furiously thrust on a young woman whose name I’ll never learn. Her inane smile is the thing I want to rid her of as I go in deeper and faster. The bed-springs screech as I discharge my soul. 

     Next night the guys and I attend a concert. The music pounds and the lights flash. Everything blurs as someone elbows me in the mouth. The groom-to-be asks if I’m okay. This is the first time. First time I like the taste of my own blood.                                                          


Tory Gaines, Age 27

               

     Pastor Jenkins’ piercing voice boomed that morning as he ranted with extra gusto. With it being Easter Sunday and the congregation larger than usual, Pastor Jenkins unleashed his greatest hits. The birth at Bethlehem, forty days in the desert, death on the cross, and eventual resurrection. Everyone jumped to their feet when Jenkins thundered “Amen!” 

     Two people down, sitting next to my mother, was Bruce. It was good seeing him. He still humored us by coming to church on Easter. We didn’t hang out much. He practiced medicine at the local clinic. I was busy underachieving. 

     Jenkins asked us to bow our heads and pray. My short dreadlocks rained down as I dropped my head. Prayer hadn’t ever been a genuine activity for me before Gwen’s murder. And now, I go about searching my heart for some unknown. 

     Dear Lord, heal me. Make the pain stop. Ease my mind. I give myself to you. Amen.

     The old man remembered he omitted a part of Christ’s grisly murder. “Flesh from his tender back was torn off as the Romans savagely whipped him. Imagine the screams,” Jenkins himself screamed. I just wished the old man didn’t narrate the details with so much glee. 

     Jenkins shouted, “We are strong because we have Christ!” He put his rail-thin arms into the air and made a muscle pose. The crowd hollered. 

     This was not the church I attended twice a week.

     Dinner at Mom’s house consisted of soul food that was delicious and fatty. Mom asked Bruce how his job was going; she took great pride in having a doctor in the family. He was in a new relationship with a beautiful nurse anesthetist. Mom nodded in approval and arched an eyebrow in my direction.

     “Mom, that pecan pie sure looks yummy. But I’m going to abstain.” Sometimes my mother needed a reason to be proud of her bachelor son. So I liked to gently remind her that I had made the transition from morbid obesity to ordinary fat guy. 

     She said something new to this. “Good, Tory. I need one of my children to outlive me.” Even Bruce was startled by this. I went back to nibbling on my cauliflower.

     Gwen and I went to Northwestern for the prestigious journalism program. We were inseparable. Our sophomore year, same year she met Bruce, I told her fiction was my true passion. I was going to become a novelist. She stuck out her bottom lip and teased, “I knew little brother was going to abandon me one of these days.” Gwen was seven minutes older than me.

     After dinner Bruce and I left together. In Mom’s front yard was the neighbor’s Frisbee. 

Bruce tossed it in my direction and I did the usual thing, dropped it. 

     Bruce laughed, “When catching, don’t be afraid to use your thumbs. 

     ”Undoing my tie, I said, “I’m a thrower, not a catcher.” I threw a perfect pass back.

     He took off his blazer. “There you go. Tory Gaines in the house!”

     The wind lifted up his next pass and I had to shift my big body to run. Approaching the chain linked fence, I leaped, reached out my right hand, and caught the tattered piece of plastic. I caught it. 

     With a smile on his face, Bruce pointed and said, “Look at the athlete! Anything else I don’t know about you?”

     I was breathing out my mouth now, and my hand held firm to the Frisbee as I prepared to toss it back. Before I did, I answered Bruce’s question, “Pl-plenty.”

     My stutter hadn’t improved until I was 16, despite all the speech therapy. So I just stayed quiet as a kid, and didn’t have many friends, or really any friends. Gwen always asked what I thought, even when no one else cared. I made her laugh after a break up or following a fight with Mom. She only laughed at me if I tried to be funny. When I wanted to see a foreign language film, she was my date. After Bruce proposed, Gwen immediately called me. Some nights, after she died, I placed the phone to my ear and listened to her old messages, always ending with “Until later, little brother!”

     I graduated with a Literature degree. For the sake of paying bills, I managed a Starbucks downtown. I was a published writer, though. And I used to have an agent. There were a couple short stories in literary journals. Those focused on the murder and trial of a man’s beloved sister, and the other centered on the sudden death of a fat loser’s best friend. My agent insisted I write with a child audience in mind. There was a dearth of voices for children of color. The manuscript I submitted was about a pig who loved eating bacon. The third act focused on the moral conundrum of his eating habits. The story was declined and my agent dropped me.

     Last week the tattoo artist told me not to do it. He said a big tattoo on the side of a ribcage is incredibly painful. The fire which devoured the left side of my body cleared my mind for the next hour. Strangely, I didn’t think and wonder and hate being here, here on this planet, surrounded by laughter and sin. Genesis 22:2 was the tattoo. God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his only son. 

     None of us leave this world unscathed. 

     My minister and I spoke last night. He wanted to know if I still hated Jerrod, the kid that killed Gwen. I shrugged. Sometimes, after a blissful day, I still dreamed of Gwen’s smashed body being taken out of her ruined Prius. 

     “If you have the patience, Tory, I promise the Lord will place forgiveness in your heart. And only then, can you heal,” he said.“That’s the word I hate the most.” 

     “Forgiveness?” 

     “No, patience.” 


Bruce, Age 30

           

     I said, “I do.” 

     Felicity looked so beautiful in her white gown. She squeezed my hand and smiled. The judge pronounced us husband and wife. Her lip gloss tasted of honey. People applauded. I smiled, almost laughed. Felicity and I agreed to love one another forever. The idea of forever was so infantile. 


Tory and the Navy Pier


     Every time I inhaled, my lungs burned, my feet throbbed, and my knees almost collapsed. I’d just done an entire mile. The first snow flake landed on my shoulder and I needed to get home before the storm began. 

     Off in the distance was the apartment complex Bruce and his wife lived in. We hardly talked. Our lives had distanced in the last year. He quit his job at the clinic and transferred to a pharmaceutical company. Dr. Flowers only helped people he didn’t have to see. Last we spoke, I didn’t recognize the man I’d known for a decade. The words from him sounded so vile. I felt confused, disheartened. Mostly, I just missed my friend.

     The Navy Pier had always been my favorite spot. Today, the deserted park rides resembled a broken dream. The only sound that existed were my gasps for air as I continued along the boardwalk. I swore I would run again. A gust of bitter cold smacked my face. My eyes watered, but the pain felt good. 

     I had just passed the museum when I started jogging, heaving all the way. Later, I’d shower, pray, and maybe, just maybe, work on that unfinished manuscript.


Bruce Revisited, Age 33

  

      This was my first time seeing Tory in about six months. His mom said he was still losing weight, and he actually looked good. When he walked into the restaurant I stood and we hugged. I sure as hell was never much of a hugger, but ever since the night of Gwen’s death we’ve hugged when greeting each other.

     “So I finally read it,” I told him.

     Tory gave me a quizzical look. 

     “Of Human Bondage.”

     “I recommended that five years ago,” Tory said. 

     “You know fiction isn’t my thing. Was I the doctor or the girl?”

      Tory laughed, a physical reaction I hadn’t heard from him in a very long time. The ensuing conversation centered on the opiate of the masses, religion. Tory went to church twice a week and attended a bible study group on Wednesdays. He spoke about incorporating an austerity into his lifestyle. The weight was shedding off his body through periodic fasting. He loudly preached about a divine plan, and I listened, for a while.

     All the talk about the meek had me place the wrist with a Rolex on it underneath the table. Across the street was my Jaguar. My days were spent researching trial drugs, gathering data and then typically discarding it. At night I returned home to Felicity, and listened to things that never interested me. Felicity spoke. And I nodded and admired her immense beauty until bed time. 

     Tory spouted nonsense about offspring, while openly judging my Oxford dress shirt. “Bruce, don’t be afraid. You’re a privileged guy. Felicity is right, adoption is an admirable cause, as you already know. A wellspring of happiness will be given.” 

     “Given from God?”

      “I can hear the skepticism. The Lord’s compassion for us is a powerful love.” 

     “And what about you? Honestly, how’s the Lord helping you?” He responded the way I expected, with pitiful silence. 

     “If unwanted kids really are so valuable, you should get married and become a foster parent. And why aren’t you married, or at least dating?” 

     He played with his fork. “You know I’ve never been good with people, especially women. Maybe...the Lord set me on the path I should be on. Same with you, Bruce.”  

     “Listen, I have an update on Jerrod.” This was the savage that killed Gwen. I had an old acquaintance that was a correctional guard at the facility where he served time. Last we spoke he let me know Jerrod was in the infirmary, he had been forcibly sodomized. I told Tory about the rape. He looked like he’d seen a ghost. 

     He whispered, “We have to f-forgive.” 

     “Fuck forgiveness! I know you still dream about Gwen’s death. I still do.”

     Tory closed his eyes. 

     “Agony. Now we all have something in common.” I signaled for the waitress to bring the check. “You know, Tory, I can accept God creating decent and indecent people. But what I can’t fucking reconcile is some figure dying on a cross so degenerates can continue to harm the innocent. I’m really asking, why is that such a good deal?”

     Three days later Felicity and I got into another argument about children. Once again we rehashed her “change of heart” about needing to be a mother. She called me a coward. Then she cried about her goddamn emptiness. The five bedroom house by Lake Michigan was no longer enough for her. Felicity had the nerve to play with her lavish gold necklace while she bitched. The screaming grew louder and she threw a glass at me. I called her an ungrateful whore. Three days after this, lawyers were hired.

     I had an elusive memory of something. Either promising Felicity, or myself, that she would never have to compete with a dead woman.

     My favorite memory of Gwen had become the first and last Father’s Day of our marriage. Lying in bed, she told me to never feel insecure about growing up in foster homes, about not having a family. “You’re going to be a great father. I know it, Bruce. And you’re stuck with me forever, so you’ll always have a family. I promise you, baby.” 

     What’s life when the best part is now extinct? When every part that follows is an inferior imitation? 

     The blood that poured from my wrists felt warm, pleasant. I dropped the razor blade and rested in the bathtub. My own estimate had it being another twenty minutes before it was over. I was an organ donor, so at least it wasn’t all for nothing.

     What surprised me were those final thoughts. I just assumed it would have been Gwen. But it wasn’t. My earliest memories are moving from house to house. I never knew the identity of my father. My mother disappeared after I was born. There was a period where I settled into the home of Ms. Sheppard, an elderly housekeeper from the Southside. One morning she came into my bedroom with something behind her back. She shouted “Happy birthday to my little Einstein!” She pulled out a strawberry cupcake. There was a candle in it. Only a couple social workers had ever remembered my birthday. Today I was nine. She said I had the day off from school so we could properly celebrate. Ms. Sheppard was a widow, and even then, I knew she didn’t have anyone. Over the next five years, until the ovarian cancer overwhelmed her, she always remembered my birthday. Ms. Dora Elaine Sheppard. I didn’t wish for anything as I blew out the candle; my wish was coming true. In the kitchen were more cupcakes she made just for me. I was special. 


And Finally Hurricane Maria 


      As we left the cemetery, I heard someone whisper, “Killing yourself is some white boy shit.” That summer alone had already produced over 200 murders. All those people, most of them black, left the city on edge once again. No one had the stomach for another funeral. 

     I wouldn’t open the letter from Bruce until I was on the plane. Leaving was for the best. While riding the South Loop I was bombarded with one memory after another from a happier time. The dreams were bad and being awake was worse.

     Tory, I read your manuscript. Like I said, fiction isn’t my thing, but the story is interesting. Ruth’s gumption reminded me of Gwen, so she’s a good protagonist. I wouldn’t read your book again, but it has grown on me. And the ending, Ruth finding love, wasn’t very real. But it was very beautiful. No matter what, please keep writing. Peace & Blessings, Bruce

      The trip to Patron, Morovis, Puerto Rico was a short one. Before I left O’Hare, my mother looked at me one last time. Maybe she realized I was the end of her lineage. Quitting my job wasn’t difficult. Well into my 30s, I had no children, home, or even automobile. 

     There wasn’t much I was leaving behind.Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God—Proverbs 14:31

      I volunteered for the Patron assignment two days after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico. Through the American Red Cross I was stationed on a tree-lined hillside. My co-patriots and I lived like vagabonds, snoozing on the ground in sleeping bags, eating small amounts of non-perishable food, and relieving ourselves outdoors. 

     The routine became hiking to a small Cathedral that was still intact. It was there I used the Spanish I learned while a freshmen in college. I delivered high volume filters. People had died from bacteria and toxins in the water.

     Light from the overhead window shone down in the main area of the church. People still lit candles for their perished family. The large cross on the altar provided a constant shadow we passed in and out of during daylight hours. 

     At night, the stars surged with light, while sweat from the oppressive heat dried on my body. Any wind that stroked my face became a gift. Resting on the ground, replaying in my mind was the hurried, desperate speech of survivors from earlier in the day. Hearing the word “gracias” always stung, knowing I’d done so little. 

     Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ—Galatians 6:2. 

     My third week there, I dreamt of riding in a car in the country. My mother was in the passenger seat, and my father was alive and driving. We reached a cottage from early on in my childhood, located somewhere in Michigan. I got out the car and I was an adult. The trees shook with the strong, cool wind. My parents had disappeared. A screen door slammed shut and an Elmo doll had been tossed in my face, Gwen’s favorite Christmas gift from so many years ago. Bruce ran towards me and held up his hands. I tossed Elmo back. Gwen was running behind, catching up, and tackled him to the ground. She got on top of him and they laughed. I turned around and it was raining, a downpour. A soaked Elmo was in my hands. I awoke.

     Right there in the brown dirt, I prayed and begged the usual thing from the Lord, to be healed. Maybe this was a divine revelation, maybe not, but I knew the chronic pain I had been feeling for so long was just that, chronic pain. This was my lot in life. 

     Behind a closed door, I was meeting with survivors, trying to discern what the pressing supplies they needed were. A new shipment of basic necessities had arrived. Mariana Maldonado, a grandmother of five, was the last person I spoke with before sundown.  She made her request with eager eyes. Rats kept coming in through the collapsed kitchen of her home. She just wanted a kitten. That was all she wanted. A cat to eat the rodents in the ruined house she called home.That was the best I could do for her.

     I buried my tear-streaked face in my hands. I didn’t realize the wailing was coming from me at first. Two frail arms encompassed me. I wrapped my arms around her scrawny back and planted my face in her blouse. The sobs gushed out. I honestly wondered if I would ever stop. Mariana caressed my back. She, ever so gently, kissed my head. This was not her first time seeing heartbreak. 


About the author: Alexander Kemp is an MPA graduate from the University of Southern California. His work has previously been published in Literary Yard and The MOON Magazine. He works as a Job Hunter for adults with disabilities and  currently lives in Kalamazoo, MI. 




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