“I’ll never be a concert violinist,” he’s saying. “I’ll never read all them damn books that I should. I’ll never go to the state of Idaho. I’ll never fly a plane.”
Duke’s listing all the things in life that he’ll never do. He says he’s a simple man with simple tastes, and he’s trying to prove it.
“But you’re not stupid,” I say. “And plus, how do you know what you will or won’t do? You still have a long life ahead of you. You have plenty of time, Duke.”
Duke bounces his knee up and down.
“I know,” he says. “It’s just some things that are beyond me. I know that loud and clear.”
“Don’t you think your woman friend will be disappointed in you? You know, being so defeatist?”
Duke watches my feet work the pedals, and he eyes my hands as I thread the steering wheel through them. For a moment he seems like he’s a child, as if I’m his father. But the odd thing is that I’m thirty-five and he’s forty-one. There are other factors.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know what she likes.”
“Well, you should find out,” I say. “Don’t you think?”
He nods and closes his eyes. When Duke’s eyes are shut he’s a picture of composure.
I think a lot about the differences between us, and especially the causes of those differences. My theory goes like this: since Duke saw the worst of our parents fighting, he got stuck with the short end of the stick. It triggered what was sour within him to come out. While I was only a baby when our parents were going at it, he was six, seven. Duke remembers. Duke blamed himself in a way. His grades suffered and he felt stupid. Then he ran off and joined the army for two years. He never saw a field of battle, but it was enough to get under his skin. Duke’s sensitive, even more than me. This might surprise people.
In contrast, though I never knew my father and always felt a void, he was more of a nagging buzz for me than a tragedy. My mother brought us up right, and our grandparents lived five minutes away. I never starved. This was enough for me. I went to college, got a good job, got married. One, two, three.
Even when we were young Duke was combative. He got suspended from school every other week it seemed. When he attacked Johnny Ainsworth with a stick, he was expelled. That spring Duke spent all day reading military history. He would lie on his bed and read thick books on Guadalcanal and Ypres and Cadiz and San Jacinto. I’d never seen him read so much, especially for school. Then he started stealing vodka from Mom’s liquor cabinet. She poured herself a drink one night, but Duke had replaced all the vodka with water. When Duke got work down at the lumberyard he started drinking half a case of beer every night. He’d have screaming matches with Mom three times a week. Something had to give.
It was just a matter of time before Duke had to go. A year later, he saw a promotional poster outside the liquor store: an old man with a colorful hat, a gray beard, a finger pointing directly at him.
“I have nothing to lose,” Duke told me.
To keep Duke focused on the shed I have him rattle off his model plane collection, then detail his armory of firearms. We’re sanding it down and then painting it a light no-gloss russet. Then we have to repair the shed roof and replace the rusty door hinges. We’re both covered in a thin sawdust powder, and Duke is going to town with his sanding block.
Not only does Duke list each Lockheed A-29, Convair B-36, Kawasaki Ki-45, Sopwith F-1 Camel, but he can describe each model in detail. Then he rhapsodizes about his Colt Python, his Ross Rifle, his Remington 4d, his Browning Automatic .22. At least he cares about something, I think.
As we start painting, Duke clams up. I ask him what’s wrong, but Duke just shakes his head and bites his lower lip. That lip is buckled with teeth markings.
“Okay by me,” I say. Brush in hand, I watch Duke’s eyes mist over. He seems to sink into his work. For almost an hour we just paint.
That night I tell Joanna that I think Duke is going to do something he’s going to regret. I’m not sure what, but I can just feel it: the calm before the storm.
She rolls her shirtsleeves up her shoulder, and dishes out her Spanish rice and beans onto two plates. I stab into my salad bowl.“I’m not exactly surprised,” she says. “Are you?”
Per Contra Fiction - Winter 2006