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Authors: Brad Land

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BOOK: Goat
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——

THE DOCTOR SAYS I have a ruptured eardrum, and a broken bone in my inner ear. From head trauma, he says. He is old with thick glasses, he is called Dr. Deckle and usually in his office I’m bent over the table with my pants around my ankles, a nurse sticking a needle into my ass but now the nurse is holding gauze beneath my ear to catch the blood and the doctor’s looking in my ear with the small flashlight. When he’s done he steps back and tells me this is what happened:

Fluid gathered around the broken bone in my inner ear. The incus. Shaped like a club. It gathered there until it ruptured the eardrum. Split the thin tissue and poured out.

   

THIS IS WHAT I do:

Take antibiotics for the infection.

Leave cotton balls in my ear (changed every hour when soaked) for three weeks.

   

AFTER THE FLUID and the blood stop, my left ear is silent.

   

BRETT NEVER TELLS me that he’s going to Clemson without me. Going ahead with this plan we made four months ago. I don’t ask him either. I can’t go now and he knows it. I didn’t even fill out the application. We don’t really talk about him leaving and me staying, we just see it coming, and I hate it even though I know it’s what has to happen.

——

ON NEW YEAR’S EVE I am drunk. Stumbling from the beer. I look at Leah from across the bonfire. Raising a beer to her mouth, laughing, I want to fall in front of her, put my arms around her legs. Brett is behind her, his face also lit orange. He touches her shoulder. They both turn, flame against their backs, they laugh, leave the dark gathering around them and then I see him open the door to the house. She passes in front of him. The door falls shut.

I drop my beer into the fire and it hisses.

   

WHEN I SEE Brett and Leah again I know. They stand a few feet apart from each other. I know what they’ve been doing. And the alcohol inside me has made me dizzy and mad, I’m running the scene over in my mind—this girl I begged to love me, my brother in a back room, mouths locked, his hands behind her back, her hands against his face. And standing there beside the fire my brother’s face is flushed red. I stare and I want him to see my eyes, I want him to know that I know what he’s been doing but he doesn’t look through the flame.

   

I WALK AROUND the edge of the fire toward Leah after Brett walks off because I can’t stand still anymore. I put my hand around her forearm and look at her.

What the fuck? I say. She looks at me like I’m crazy. I let my hand drop. I’m still staring at her.

What, she says, what do you want?

Him, I say. Point to my brother. You and him?

Yeah, she says. Turns her eyes toward the fire. Yeah.

Why, I mean?

Okay. You have got to leave me alone. I’m sorry you’re sad. I’m sorry about all that happened to you. But it’s not you and me. It was just one kiss.

I know. But my brother.

So what? she says and my head is lolling, hands shaking, and all that comes out is mumbling, goddamn you I say goddamn you goddamn you.

She looks at me with hard eyes.

What?

I said goddamn you. She turns to leave.

No, fuck you. Fuck you. I scream it.

Fuck fuck fuck you. Fuck you. Motherfuck you. She doesn’t turn and everyone gathered outside is staring me down. My brother comes over and I’m singing it now, fuck you, fuck you, over and over, this chant, this prayer. He takes my arm, I look at him, jerk my arm away, fuck you I say, point my finger at his face, fuck you, I throw my beer against a wall of the house. Brett grabs my arm again, tells me it’s time to leave, pulls me while I’m still muttering it, fuck you, and he opens the passenger side door to his car, ducks my head and sits me down. He pulls onto the highway and inside the car it’s dark and I’m not saying anything, I can feel his eyes on me.

Listen, he says, and I tell him to shut his fucking mouth. He sighs, drops his palms against the steering wheel. Listen, goddammit, he says and I turn to look at him. I point.

You knew, you fuck, I say, and you did it anyway. He shakes his head.

I start wailing inside the car slamming my hands against the glass. Brett pulls the car over to the side of the road. Turns the headlights off.

All you did was kiss, he says. I don’t say anything. Fuck, man, he says, I didn’t know you liked her so much. I wouldn’t have done it, you know? I didn’t know. I didn’t.

Then I’m limp and heaving, he leans over and places a palm flat against my head, runs it backward and I can’t stop crying.

Fuck, man, he says, and I know that I’m too much for him, that I’m too hard to be around.

For a long time we sit on the side of the cracked highway, me crying, him running his hand over my head and when cars pass their headlights burn white, the air they gather shakes the car.

   

TWO DAYS BEFORE he leaves Brett tells me he wants to know what’s true. We’re sitting in a bar, four in the afternoon, a table in the corner smoking cigarettes and drinking beer.

True about what? I say.

About anything. Your thing.

No one knows what to call my thing. Here are the names:

My mother: your abduction.

My father: the incident.

And then: The kidnapping. The robbery. The choking. The shit-kicking. The trunk thing. The woods thing. This thing. And I don’t know what to call it, I just say what happened to me, that thing that happened.

Brett stubs a cigarette. Pulls another and lights it.

Did you see something?

Like what?

Like light. Or God. Your life.

No. Nothing like that.

Brett turns and looks over the bar, the dense smoke, the heads slouched over drinks, the dim light in the place. He blows a mouthful of smoke.

Saw a fox, I say.

A fox, he says.

Yeah. It talked.

Brett just looks at me. I mash the cigarette.

Asked me to stay there, I say.

I turn my head toward the bar and then back to Brett.

You want another beer? I say.

So? he says.

What?

The fox.

Yeah. It talked. Told me to stay there in the field. I didn’t know how to get out and I was asking it but it kept telling me to stay there. Then it ran. But that was it, I mean, that’s all I saw.

Brett finishes his beer. Stares down at the table. He hands me a cigarette, the ashes collected on the wood between us, white neon in the window.

   

MY PARENTS TELL him good-bye.

My father is smiling. My mother is trying not to cry. Got her arms crossed over her chest. We say this prayer together all standing in a circle holding hands, my mother’s face clenched with the sobs saying please be with my boy protect him and my father calmly saying please be with my boy protect him and my youngest brother Matthew saying flatly dear God be with Brett and he’s sixteen and in another place thinking of his friends and parties and this doesn’t even make him blink and when it’s my turn I just say please be with Brett, God, please take care of him but the whole time inside my head I’m saying please make him stay.

I keep opening my eyes and looking over at this picture of Brett and me while my mother and father say more prayers. We are small, maybe four and five, and we are straddling a cannon. A brick building behind us. Brett has on an orange shirt that says Clemson. He has on blue jeans. A baseball cap pulled down over his eyes. It says Clemson also. I have on the same thing. Brett’s in front. I’m leaning my head to the side. And it’s all there in the picture, and it’s in my blood, this place my grandfather went, this place my father went, this place we are supposed to be together.

And then we all say amen. My mother and father hold Brett for a long time. He pats them on the shoulders, says I’m fine, I’ll be fine. My mother keeps her arms crossed. My father nods.

   

AND AFTER THAT it’s me and him in the driveway. On a Monday. Five days after New Year’s.

Brett leans against his stuffed car. Arms crossed over his slim chest. All the clothes and sheets and a stereo and speakers and books inside the car. I want to tell him that he can’t go, that I need him here with me but I don’t because I know he needs to go, to be out of this crumbling town. And I know I’m part of the reason he needs to go.

I’ve got my hands in my pockets. Staring down at the concrete. Leaves and pine straw in the driveway. The sky hard and bright. I take my foot and kick at the leaves.

So, he says.

Yeah, I say. Still looking down.

You’ll be fine. He touches my shoulder. I look up at him.

I know.

You will. I promise. And you can come when you’re ready.

Yeah. I shake my head. August. He squeezes my shoulder.

When you’re ready.

Okay. When I’m ready. But don’t worry about me. I want you to be good up there. I know you will. You’ll be a rock star. I throw my arms up above my head.

Yeah?

Oh, yeah. Fucking rock star.

Okay, he says. And then we don’t know what to say. He just looks at me and I just look at him and five days ago I called him a fuck but now I don’t care, I just don’t care because he’s leaving.

And in this silence my brother is speaking to me. He’s telling me I will be good, I will be fine and I believe him, and for the first time in a long while I feel like I can breathe.

Brett takes the keys from his pockets. Twirls them on a finger.

Guess I should go, he says.

Yeah, I say. Sure.

So.

So.

Call me, he says.

I will.

He puts a hand behind my neck and pulls me into his chest.

——

I STAND IN the driveway and watch him go. He backs out. Moves up to the stop sign that borders the main road. Turns the blinker left. He doesn’t look back.

I run to the sidewalk and watch his car. In the traffic, the rush of metal and tire, my brother’s car grows small until I can’t see it anymore.

4

BRETT CALLS ON a Thursday. Four days after he left. Tells me he’s going to join a fraternity. Kappa Sigma, he says and the whole time he’s saying this to me I want to say why? (even though we went to fraternity parties because there was nothing else to do, we always made fun of them, fucking sheep we said, a bunch of fucking sheep) but I don’t say anything because he sounds happy.

Nice people, he says. Really good guys.

Oh, yeah?

Yeah.

Well, okay.

Going to a bar tonight with them. Place called TD’s.

Cool.

I think so. They’re different than I thought, you know? They’ve been schmoozing me and this kid named Wes. And I’m meeting people. This place is fucking huge.

Yeah?

Really. Fucking huge. But this is making it easier.

Good. I told you.

What?

You’d be a rock star.

Whatever.

Told you.

Yeah. You did. But I’m not really a rock star.

Close, man. Real close. This is like the contract and all. The signing.

He laughs. Okay okay. The signing.

Fucking rock star.

Shut up.

Fucking rock star.

And then he says later and I say later and he hangs up the phone.

   

I GO TO Clemson to visit Brett on a weekend in March. Even though I wanted to go earlier, I didn’t because I knew he needed the distance. He needed to figure things out. And part of me is scared that he’ll be different, that the school will have changed him.

Clemson: air all wet from rain, dead leaves still scattered and piled against trees and buildings. Brett lives in a dorm called Johnstone, where my grandfather lived, and where my dad lived when he went here. The first thing I think when I see the building is that it should be condemned. It’s tilted like it wants to keel over. Three stories with cracked windows and rusted air-conditioning units in each window. Torn stairwells on each side of the building enclosed by head-high fencing. I open a door on one corner of the building, the smell hits me in the face, the damp, the sweat. On the stairwell I pass boys in shorts and sleeveless shirts talking about weights, on the walls in black it says this among other things: fuck you Johnstone.

Brett’s room is on the second floor and there are murals of cartoon characters painted along the hall, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Road Runner, all these Looney Tunes with jungle backgrounds behind them. I knock on Brett’s door and I hear the music inside, fast punk rock, a band called Screeching Weasel and he opens the door, throws his arms around my neck.

Man, he says, I’m glad to see you.

Me, too, I say. I mean good to see you. Not me.

Yeah. He holds the door open. I walk in. Inside the room there’s a sink on one wall with a mirror, bunk beds on the other wall, a coffee table in the middle, two wooden wardrobes in the back corners. Neither of us has lived in a dorm before. At the last school we lived at home. Brett’s got a poster from the movie
Reality Bites,
it’s Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder leaned in close. Brett sits down on the bottom bed. Hands on his knees.

This is where I live, he says.

Yeah it’s cool, I say.

I sit down on the coffee table. The window is open. Someone yells from below, says Brett, Brett. Brett turns the music down, goes over to the window and leans out. He doesn’t say anything. Someone yells get down here. Brett turns and looks at me.

Come on, he says.

Where? I say.

Gotta go down for a minute.

——

OUT ON THE sidewalk a guy sticks his hand out to Brett and Brett takes it.

Hey man, Brett says, this is my older brother and the guy holds out a hand toward me.

James Autrey, he says. I give my hand, he shakes it firm. Brett standing with his hands on his hips.

James’s my big brother, he says. He means Kappa Sigma big brother, who, Brett’s told me, is a person who looks out for you in the fraternity.

James looks at me and I want to tell him to fuck off but I don’t.

Heard a lot about you, he says. I nod and then he’s done with me, he turns to Brett, holds up a finger.

One second, he says, takes Brett over a few feet. He’s got his arm around Brett’s shoulders, mouth close to his ear, and Brett’s nodding. They come back over to me.

Good to meet you, James says.

Likewise, I say. He turns to go and when he’s down the sidewalk a bit Brett cocks his head toward the dorm entrance and we go and open the door.

On the stairwell Brett says that guy’s pretty nice.

Yeah, I say, he seemed nice.

I gotta go do something, he says.

What?

Go pick up his girlfriend and take her over to his place.

Why?

Just because. He’s my big brother.

I nod. I am jealous.

Inside Brett’s room he pulls a white T-shirt over his head, puts on a navy short-sleeve collared shirt. Tucks it in.

Gotta dress up? I say.

Yeah, he says, we always have to look all right, you know?

Yeah, I say. Brett looks in the mirror. Runs hands back through his hair. Turns and looks at me.

I really don’t want to do this, he says.

Sucks, I say.

Sure as fuck does. He holds one hand out. Can I borrow your car? he says. An hour tops. Don’t feel like calling anybody right now for a car.

Yeah, man, I say, fumble in my pockets, pull out the keys and drop them into his hand.

You be all right here? he says.

Sure, I say.

After I’m done we’ll hang out. Go to a movie or something.

Okay.

I tell you what, he says. That fucker doesn’t know what he’s got coming.

What fucker?

James. He’s going to get his tomorrow. Kidnap.

I look at him. Squint my eyes.

It’s this thing we do. The pledges. We ambush someone who gives us shit and put them in the back of a truck. Blindfold them. Make them drink a shitload until they get sick.

Oh.

I mean we’re gonna fuck him up.

You guys can do that?

Sort of an unwritten rule. A tradition.

Sure. I look down at the floor.

Oh, fuck, man. He looks at me hard.

What?

I’m sorry.

What?

Kidnapping shit. I didn’t even think about it.

It’s okay. I’m over it.

Really?

Kind of.

You sure you’ll be okay here?

Yeah. I’m sure.

Brett opens the door. Turns back to me. One hand still on the door.

An hour, he says. I promise.

Yeah, man, I say. Wave him away. Go, I say. Brett nods his head and closes the door.

   

THAT NIGHT WE go off campus to a movie theater because Brett says no one will be able to find him there. Back in Brett’s room we turn off the ringer on the phone. I fall asleep to the sound of someone’s music playing down the hall and I leave in the morning like I’d planned, before Brett wakes up, because I know he has things to do, and in the car on the way home, when I think about Clemson, it feels good, like where I should be.

   

THIS SEMESTER I’M making good grades, a three point zero. I’ve forced the smile and the breath from my head.

It is this simple: I pretend it was a dream. Nobody talks about it anymore. My father. My mother. Matthew. Everyone is silent. And part of me knows that this will find me later, that it will hunt me down and run through me. But all the time I’m thinking about Clemson, about being normal and doing what Brett does. I let all of it stay quiet.

   

IN APRIL WE all go to Deberdieu again and Brett comes even though he’s away at school. Brett brings this guy Chance McInnis, a kid we grew up with who’s a brother in his fraternity.

When Brett and Chance get to the beach house it’s like they’re different kinds of people, like they’re somewhere doing something important and even though I know what they’re doing isn’t important, I can’t help but feel that they’re stars or something. Everybody stares at them when they come in, already drunk because they pounded beers in the car the whole way down. Like they know something about the world that we don’t.

After a while, Brett goes and sits in a trash can. Legs out over the edge, his head resting against the back. Drinking his beer. I’m staring at this girl who I know would break me if I loved her but I can’t help it. I look over at Brett. Holds his hand out to me. I can tell something’s off about him, his eyes wild and swimming with the alcohol. I go over and take his hand. He looks up at me and tells me he loves me, tells me he’s sorry. I know he’s telling me he’s sorry for not being there that night. I shake my head and say it’s cool. He keeps holding my hand.

No, he says. It’s not.

Yeah, it is, I say. He rubs his eyes, his temples. I’m sorry for being fucked up, I say. He shakes his head.

You aren’t fucked up. I’m fucked up. He smiles. Not like mentally or anything, he says. I’m just drunk. I pull him up out of the trash can and he wobbles. I put my hands on his shoulders and he shrugs them away.

I’m fine, he says. Light-headed that’s all. He takes a pull from the beer. Points over at Chance, who’s sitting on the couch with this girl.

Now he, Brett says, is a sonofabitch. He looks nice and all but he’s a fucking sonofabitch. Break me in half if I told him that though. Big fat bitch.

Brett’s words sliding from his mouth like spit.

He looks at me. Smiles.

I’m sorry, he says. I nod.

Chance tells Brett to get his ass over. Brett stumbles over, sits down next to Chance. I look at the girl I’ve been watching the whole time. Leaned against a wall across the room. Pulling hair behind her ears. Cocking a hip to one side. I go into the kitchen and find some vodka. I hate vodka but there’s nothing else but beer and I need something to make me brave. The shot glass coming to my lips. Again. Once more for luck. I chase it with the beer.

   

SHE’S STANDING BY the stereo, looking for a compact disc. I wipe my mouth and go over and when I’m there I touch the small of her back and she turns her face up. Smiles. Eyes wobbling.

What do you like? she says.

Anything, I say. She holds up a disc. Sam Cooke again. I nod. I feel her hand graze mine. It’s light and we test each other that way with our fingers against each other and then I put my fingers through hers and she pulls me toward the porch.

   

OUTSIDE WE DANCE, and the alcohol has made me bold and when I kiss the girl it’s like every bad thing that came before doesn’t matter. I keep my eyes open the whole time.

   

THE MUSIC’S DONE. I take the girl to a bed, lay her down and pull the sheets up over her. She leans up and kisses me hard, drops her head back down and I stand there and I wish she’d love me but I know it would be like before with Leah. This random moment. I’d make her sick, she’d hate me, I’d cry for days. So I watch her fall asleep and she’s perfect.

   

I GO INTO the bathroom and Brett’s laid down sideways on the vanity, arms in one sink, feet in the other, torso across the flat middle. The long mirror at his back. I stare at him for a long time there in the sinks, watching him breathe and his breath is slow. His face flushed red. Stubble around his cheeks and mouth. And he’s got this small stream of blood running from his right nostril. It’s slow and dried on his upper lip. I take tissue and wipe his nose, his upper lip. Wait for the blood to come back. And when it doesn’t I bend down, put one arm under his legs and the other beneath his shoulders. Pick him up. He puts his arms around my neck, rubs his head into my chest. Leaves a red stain on my shirt. I take him into a bedroom, lay him down. Pull off his shoes. Put the pillow beneath his head. A trash can beside his face. I sit down against the wall and watch him. He stirs, cracks one eye and looks over at me.

Love you, man, he says.

Yeah, I love you, I say and then he’s sleeping again. Lamplight in one corner of the bedroom. The tissue still in my hands, I take a thumb and run it over the dried blood. Against the wall I watch my brother and I know now even more that I want to be with him at Clemson, be like we were in the picture. I decide then that I’m going to go to Clemson and I’ll pledge his fraternity. Even though something inside thinks it’s wrong, I make it quiet. I hold the tissue and watch my brother breathe until my eyes close.

   

I GET ACCEPTED to Clemson in early May. Brett comes home. Moves to the beach. I stay at my parents’. To earn money, I say. But really I don’t want to leave yet. I tell myself that I need the time because it’s all I’ve got left.

I take a job delivering flowers. To hospitals. Funeral homes. And all summer it’s me and death and sickness, opening the doors of hospital rooms, an old man or woman alone with the tubes and the machines clicking beside them and the smell like urine and disinfectant, I take the flowers, the vases, the cards, I place them on the tables beside the beds and leave.

At the funeral homes I pull up to the back, open the door for deliveries and it’s always caskets and flowers and pink carpet and old wood.

——

IN EARLY AUGUST, Brett and I leave for Clemson. On the interstate, fields fade to red clay and broken rock. Small towns named Pender, Union, and Newberry along the way. Every so often we pass crosses made from wood or PVC pipe and they’re topped with weathered plastic flowers. Skid marks nearby. A crumpled shoulder guard. The crosses are barely visible, placed at the edge of woods next to a scarred tree. Sometimes a name on a wooden sign attached to the cross. Sometimes none.

I am trailing my brother closely and my car rattles when it hits sixty-five. Brett doesn’t look in his rearview every so often like I wish he would to make sure I’m still here.

   

I KEEP THINKING about what Brett knows, how he’s leading me somewhere I need to be, and I feel like I’m doing the right thing. For a while I play the Clash really loud and it makes me feel good.

After I play four CD’s I turn on the radio. A NASCAR race is on and I don’t even like car races but it’s nice to listen to the voice and the occasional hum of cars. But the cars make me think about the crosses on the side of the road and how small they are and I can’t stop and I shake when I think about the place I’m going. Even though I think it’s a good move, I know I’m carrying this thing with me that will fuck me sooner or later. I clench my mouth and hold my breath, concentrate on the road. Clemson is seventy miles away but I can already see it waiting for me.

BOOK: Goat
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