"Olives" by Nathan Leslie
My brother Duke eats olives all morning. He sits on the front porch and sucks olive meat from the pits, spits them into an old red and black Nike shoebox. The swoosh is stained and blistered, and the red is now almost a faded salmon color. I suppose he brought the shoebox from home. Now it is filled with olive pits. Home for Duke is an efficiency apartment overlooking the highway. He says he likes watching the traffic at night. He says the rumble of engines helps him sleep.
I unfold a lawn chair and sit out in the yard with my back to Duke. If I face him I know he will clam up, so this is the only way. It is a warm day in early April, and the hyacinths and crocuses and pear trees are in bloom. Little red nubs are on the trees, and the birds twitter in the branches and poke into the grass seed near the fire hydrant. A steady flow of tourists walk south on Main Street to the antique shops and restaurants. Duke mutters to himself about this. It’s Sunday.
“So, you still going to help me with that shed?” I ask him. I don’t turn around. I do slump my shoulders, as if I don’t really care one way or another at his answer, as if to say, “I’m just asking for my own knowledge is all.”
Duke spits into the shoebox and mumbles something about “damn parasites.” This could mean anything really. I ask him again.
“Yeah,” he says, loudly, as if he’s trying to shout above the din. “Fine. I’ll help you.”
This is a start, I think. I invited him over with the expressed purpose of getting him out of his head. Duke makes me feel helpless, but I’m his only brother. The way I see it, we have to look out for each other.
“You know what I saw in The Pennysaver?” Duke says suddenly.
“I know,” he says. “What kind of an idiot would sell a Winchester .458? It’s a perfect fucking gun.”
“Well, maybe it’s somebody that needs the money,” I say.
Then I feel an olive pit thunk the back of my jacket.
“Look at me,” Duke yells. I turn around, afraid of what I’ll see.
Duke is wearing his ratty fatigues, and his black mud stomping boots. His face is thick and stubbled leathery and yellowed and his cap is pulled down over his eyes. Duke clenches and unclenches his jaw. His mouth looks sour. He stands up and throws another pit at me.
“Nobody can need money that bad, ya hear?”
“Okay,” I say. “Okay.”
“I’d rather rob a damn bank with the thing than part with it. That’s shit, man.”
“Okay,” I say again. “I heard you the first time, Duke.”
I can feel the people on the sidewalk staring, leaning and whispering to themselves as they flow down Main Street. I don’t want to be intimidated by him. Duke’s my only brother.
“You should buy it then,” I say. “Who’s stopping you?”
Duke sits back down on the wicker chair at that. I gave the right answer. He sighs and picks another olive out of the slimy jar, and tosses it into his mouth like popcorn.
“That’s what I’m gonna do then,” he says.
In the truck, Duke tells me about this woman that follows him around his neighborhood. He says she’s evil, witchy. He hates waiting in the truck, like a dog hates going to the vet. I wonder if the sensation reminds him of something.
“She’s deeply in love with me,” he says. “You know? She told me she wants to bear my children. She’s psycho. Real stalker type.”
As far as I know Duke hasn’t been with a woman in five years. I certainly haven’t met girlfriends. When Duke lived down in Kentucky his Army buddy Grover used to get Duke hookers on special occasions, but Grover drove his car off a bridge in 1998. Fourth of July. Nobody knows just what happened, but I always knew the guy was cooked. That’s when Duke moved back up here.
I’m taking Duke to my property on Placid Drive, ten minutes outside of town. I bought two houses in March, but they need work before I can rent them out. I thought, what better way to keep Duke sane than give him a project or two? Give us both some peace of mind. The house down on Placid needs new tiling, carpeting, and it could use a paint job on the inside. It needs extensive landscaping in the back.
Duke makes his living off odd jobs, and with my rental properties I could keep him busy for some time. I’d like to help.
“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?”
“No,” I say. “I just feel helpless. That’s all.”
I tell her about the olive pits, and Joanna shakes her head. She thinks Duke should have gotten help ten years ago. Medicine. Therapy. Something. I don’t disagree. “The window passed him by,” she said once. Now he doesn’t have patience for Duke anymore. At times I wonder if she thinks someone should just put him out of his misery. I’m sure she’s thought something close to this.
“What gives him meaning?” she asks. “I mean really?” We were in bed once and she told me that Duke seems like a tree that has had to grow around a rock. The image stuck. Even as I ate my lettuce and carrots I could imagine the bared and warped trunk, coiling around the rock.
“That’s a good question,” I say, and I don’t know the answer to it aside from planes and guns. Maybe that’s enough. I wonder myself if I can see him clearly. “I really don’t know what to do,” I say. Joanna sits across from me, and pats Parmesan cheese over her rice.
“Well, you should,” she says. “Isn’t he your brother?” I hate her questions.
“Is there anything I can do? What can I do, Joanna?”
“He needs to be under supervision,” she says, looking right through me. “He has a problem and now he’s treating it like it doesn’t exist. No self reflection whatsoever.”
Duke was seeing a counselor for years, but last winter he refused to go. Then he decided to remove himself from his meds. We both told him it was a terrible idea, but he said he just wanted to feel clean. He said he wanted to feel like a human. Now, sometimes he calls us at four in the morning to talk about some Civil War battle, or the clatter of a machine gun. Twice a week he just shows up at our house to eat.
I tell her she’s right. I know she’s right. Easier said than done though. Now he’s slipped into new patterns, and Duke has become another person. I tell her he’s not changeable, not unless he was forced.
“Maybe he should be forced then,” she says. “I mean, he is a threat.”
Joanna bites her own lip and squeaks her shoes on the floor. I lift a fork of rice and beans to my mouth, and listen to the sounds of myself chewing. For a moment it drowns out everything else.
The next day Duke and I are out at Placid Drive again. It is still extremely hot for April, about eighty and humid. The shed is done, but we need to start pealing wallpaper, and taking up the old chipped tiles. I carry the steamer, and Duke carries the shovel and scrapers. While I’m in the living room steaming the wallpaper, Duke is in the kitchen wedging the shovel under tiles. I’m sweating bullets, but Duke looks peaceful, calm. I watch him work the shovel with a steady and careful hand. He doesn’t smile exactly, but his face looks relaxed. Duke didn’t bring his box of olive pits today. I can picture it moldering on his kitchen counter. I packed tomato sandwiches and oranges.
After two hours of this we take a break. By this point Duke has scraped the kitchen tile off, and he just has to lay the new tile, and I’ve steamed the living room and the hallway. We lean against the living room wall and drink iced-tea. I dab my face with a towel.
I want to tell Duke what Joanna and I talked about last night, but I don’t. I want to tell him that I’m worried, that I don’t want my only brother to sink into a position where he can’t get himself out.
“How’s the stalker woman?” I ask him.
“Shit,” he says. “Woman was following me all fucking night. She was laughing at me and mocking. I think she’s going to have me kicked out of the apartment. She’s trying to kill me and move into my room.”
“Come on,” I say. “That seems far
fetched, Duke. Don’t you think?”
I tell Duke that if he wants me to come over tonight, I can. I’d be happy to keep a watch out. I tell him maybe I should speak to this woman in his building, that I can if he wants me to. He says he just wants to forget about it.
“Listen, I can take care of myself you know. I don’t need your fucking help, man. I got it well under control.”
That’s what I’m afraid of. I sit there, my sweaty t-shirt sticking to the wall. I clam up. Sometimes I think if I were more confrontational I would make better inroads with Duke. But I just don’t want to push him and make it worse. I don’t want to pester him. Ultimately, I know it is his life. What can I really do?
Duke tosses his head back and downs the rest of his iced-tea.
“Back to work for me,” he says, and stands. I expect him to lean down and lift me up, but instead he walks back into the kitchen and rips into the box of tile with his bare hands.
When I drop him off at his apartment building Duke points the woman out to me. She’s an old hunched lady with kinky hair the color of rust and thick gouges in her face. I can’t tell if the gouges are scars or just age lines, but she’s obviously too weak to be much of a threat. She sits next on the steps to the building next to a ratty plastic bag that looks like it is about to explode. She rubs her face with her grimy hands. The woman holds out a plastic cup but nobody looks at her.
“That’s her,” he says.
“She doesn’t even live here,” I say.
“She’s a murderer,” Duke says. “Just look at her face.”
I try to tell him he’s off, but it’s pointless. He says he’ll see me later on. Duke slams the door.
After dinner that night I sit on the front porch and drink a beer, and Joanna sips a glass of Shiraz and rocks in the porch swing. I think about our parents, and how Mom raised Duke and me to be independent, how we were expected to hold our own and contribute. I wonder what kind of lessons my father taught Duke that I was never privy to, and I wonder how those factor into Duke’s thinking.
The last time I spoke to our father was two years ago. He called me from Richmond one afternoon and left a message saying that he was in town for the weekend, and he wanted to know if I would meet him for a drink. He didn’t say why he was in the area, or anything of the sort. He just kept it brief, reading off a phone number in his gravely, flat-toned voice. Then he hung up. I never called back.
I wasn’t even sure where my father was living, or what he was doing, though I found out later from Duke that he’s in Maine. He calls Duke about once a month from Northern Maine, and even sends him cards on occasion.
Then the phone rings. Joanna answers the cordless. “Hold on,” she says, tossing me the phone.
“Hey man.” It’s Duke. His voice sounds tinny and distant. “Can you come and pick me up?”
“Sure,” I say.
“Wait,” he says. “I’m not at home.”
“Ok. Where are you then?” I look at my watch—it’s about ten. “You know the Shell station down on Holly Boulevard?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Sure.”
“I’m behind it.”
When I pull into the station I find Duke sitting on the curb next to the phone. He is still dressed in the same gray military attire from today’s work. A single streetlight illuminates him. The noise from the highway is deafening. Wedged in between the asphalt and the curb are cigarette butts and bottle caps and twisted coffee stirrers. The air smells of diesel fumes.
I park, and cut the engine. A cold front is moving in. The air is chilled and the clouds blast across the sky.
When I sit next to him on the curb, Duke hardly seems to register my presence. I put my arm around his shoulder. He blinks and scrapes his feet on the asphalt.
“What’s up, Duke? It’s late. I need to get to sleep.”
“I shot the woman,” he says. “That witch murderer.”
I don’t know what to say. I just sit there, and let the word ‘murderer’ bounce around my brain. I shake my head and withdraw my arm. I have to admit my first instinct is fear. But I stand my ground.
“Jesus, Duke. You shot that poor woman?”
“She was following me all night. She was laughing at me, laughing at what she was going to do to me. You know? I had to.” We sit there listening to the traffic. I expect him to be angry, but he exhales and sighs. He actually seems relieved, sedated.
“I guess I should call,” he says.
“Jesus, Duke. Where?”
He swallows and closes his eyes. He points to his forehead and grits his teeth. His finger shakes and sags.
I listen to the buzz of the streetlamp, and the sounds of trucks on the interstate. In July moths will hurl themselves against the lamp. I think of their sizzling wings. I know it is only a matter of time. What can I really do? What does he want from me? Maybe Joanna was right after all. She usually is.
“Okay,” I say. “I’m your brother. You tell me what to do.”
He scrapes his foot in the gravel, back and forth. Then he looks down at his laces. His eyelids look heavy and dark. For a moment he reminds me of some kind of extinct animal with overly large, lumbering features.
“Man, just wait here with me. I
need to make that other call,” Duke says. Then he stands up, and does
what he says he will do. All I can do is watch and let it happen.