Lord of the Trash
"Well, look at it this way, kid, you'll be the only one in the whole school that knows what the spoon at the top
of the plate is for."
Sam scowled at me and then turned back to look out the car window at the endless miles of well — nothing —
to his mind. Endless miles of unidentifiable plants, all in disconcertingly straight rows, broken only occasionally
with similar fields of cows. The cows were only slightly more interesting — he'd probably never seen one before.
Sam is my brother — my half brother really. He was my father's last bid at immortality. My father made several
bids at immortality while he was still alive, and it took the patience of four wives. I'm still not sure he ever
achieved it. Certainly not in the flesh — the whole reason I was driving Sam through the cornfields was
because when my father died, his fourth wife didn't want to deal with him and promptly put him on a plane. I
was Sam's last living relative.
I wasn't sure my father was going to achieve immortality through Sam or me, either. Not judging by events
thus far. At 32 and still single, it didn't look like I'd be adding to the gene pool any time soon, and my time
was running out, so it looked like it was going to be up to Sam.
Picking Sam up at the airport left me with doubts to this end. What 17-year-old boy owns a suit that fits that
well? It was unnatural. His hair was carefully groomed and did weird, wispy things over his eyebrows. It
appeared to be intentional.
I hadn't seen Sam since he was 6. Every couple of years, I would remember that it was his birthday and send
a card with some money in. Christmas, too, sometimes, if I was talking to my father that year. But it's a bit
hard to maintain enthusiasm for a relationship that you never really had.
Sam was my father's son by his third wife — long past the time that the indignant bitterness had worn off of
his divorce from my mother. In fact, they'd become quite the chums toward the end. Sam was just sort of
lost in the juggle of marriages and divorces. I was in high school when Sam was born and completely
uninterested. I barely glanced at the announcement card with the picture of the bloated, alien creature in the
picture before handing it back to my mother. She had seemed amused by it at the time.
It was sad. I liked Sam's mother. Her name was Lillian, and she was sweet and unassuming on top and hard
as nails below. I'd only met her once, at the wedding, and she had winked at me at the reception. It was one
of those sly winks shared between women gapped by generations that says "Just watch me, honey—I'll show
you how it's done." But when Sam was only 4, Lillian was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she hadn't
survived. Her funeral two years later was the first and only time I'd ever met Sam. Come to think of it, the
only time I ever saw Sam was when one of his parents died. I hoped he wasn't going to hold it against me.
I went to Lillian's funeral. I didn't go to my father's. Make of that what you will. And now I've talked far more
about my father than I ever intended, because this story isn't about him. It's just about what he left behind —
one perennially subdued woman with dirty blond hair and a love/hate relationship with the Department of
Defense, and one rather skeptical teenaged boy with at least one good suit and a painfully arranged hair style.
"There really isn't much to do around the house," I told him, navigating the curved roads around the fields. "I
don't mean, you know, things to do. I mean work." Sam blinked at me like he'd never heard the word before.
"I mean, it's just a small house, not much of a yard. There's a lot of farms out here, but I just have a little
place on the edge of town."
He scowled at me again, as though I were speaking a foreign language, and I have to admit for a moment I was
tempted to speak louder, just in case it helped.
"I just don't want you thinking you have to milk cows or anything."
He smiled. "Angela told me you were in the Army. I figured I'd be cleaning guns or washing tanks or
I stared at him, almost causing a rather closer cow encounter than was comfortable. My eyes shot back to the
road before I found myself the inadvertent owner of a lot of fresh beef.
"Yeah, I'm in the Army."
"That's funny, Dana." he said, staring at the cows. "You don't look like a baby killer."
"I'm not," I sighed. Great, I thought, one of those.
"Me either," he said, a little too flatly for my liking. "I prefer to wait 'til they're in preschool. More meat on
them, that way."
He winked at me.
* * *
Sam settled in pretty quickly for a pampered city kid. He hauled all his own luggage out of the car, made no
comment about the less-than-luxurious accommodations I'd scrambled out of the spare room three days
earlier when I'd been notified of his impending arrival. He didn't even say anything about the air mattress that
would serve for his bed and the milk crate that would play nightstand in his domestic arrangements until I
could have real furniture delivered.
He shrugged out of his suit coat and carefully hung it on a nail in the paneling and shooed me off while he
changed into something more suitable for the country.
The thing about the Army is that they can pretty much send you anywhere, and you can't argue. They tend to
take advantage of the relationship. That love/hate thing I was talking about earlier. Don't get me wrong, I
love my job, as much as anyone can love a job — but I hate the Army. I'm a nurse in the Army, and I'm not
sure what I'd be doing if I weren't. There's just something a little too perverse about an educated mind that
makes it possible to swallow the idea of being hired to fix people who've been sent out to get damaged
intentionally. I'm just not sure where in my personal philosophy to place that awkward and nagging concept
that says that if we stopped sending them out to get damaged, we could forgo the whole patching them up
This time, the Army had sent me to some isolated base in the middle of the US, surrounded by cornfields and
cowfields. It wasn't even in the middle of nowhere — it was on the outskirts of nowhere. I figured I could
manage. After all, I'd managed elsewhere, Korea, Saudi. I'd shaken out the duffel, put on my cap, pinned on
the old caduceus and managed. And I managed here too, renting a small house off base made of plywood and
corrugated metal in a scrubby yard full of weeds, an old oak tree, and an abandoned pig trough. I'd always
thought about planting flowers in it, but even that seemed too much an effort for this place. I was just killing
time, hoping to end up with a better assignment somewhere — anywhere.
Sam settled in quickly and carefully. The boy did everything carefully. He picked his way through the house,
placing his feet with some thought, examining my meager belongings, the worn carpet, the broken window
blinds, the second-hand furniture. He took serious pains to store his various concoctions in the bathroom,
next to my half-spilled shampoo and soap bottles. He didn't appear to be afraid to offend, but he did seem to
be conscious on not imposing his existence on my life.
The next day, I took him into the local high school to register him. I walked beside him through the dusty,
concrete halls to the principal's office, noting the looks on the faces of the local girls with some amusement. I
could tell they were quite impressed. A mop bucket may have been in order. Sam had dressed, well, carefully,
for his first day in the new school. That was my little brother — six feet tall, shaggy, blonde hair that took two
hours to look like he'd just rolled out of bed, with bedroom eyes and lashes that any woman would kill for. I
had found myself forced to question his choice of dress that morning.
"You know, Sam, boys don't dress like that here," I said, eyeing his skinny jeans and suit jacket. "Do you have
anything a little more... lived in? Something that fits a bit looser?"
"It doesn't matter," he said shrugging a long, pink silk scarf around his neck. I began to fear for his safety.
"Seriously, Sam, those jeans are so tight, we can all tell you're Catholic. That may be all the rage back in
Chicago, but, you know, around here..."
"I said it doesn't matter, Dana. Either way, I'm going to be a freak, so I may as well start out being my own
kind of freak. Right?" He looked at me with big, green eyes that should have held more wonder than cynicism,
but what could I say?
"As it is," he smiled, "it may be a good thing you're a nurse, eh?" He threw his arm around me and kissed the
top of my head.
But the local girls were impressed, if only by the addition of the pink scarf or perhaps by his complete lack of
interest in them. I remembered those days — nothing more attractive on the face of the earth than a boy that
has absolutely no use for you.
* * *
We spent evenings over sandwiches or take out food. I'm not much of a cook, to be honest. Sam carefully
cleaned up afterwards. Sometimes we'd watch television together, but more often, he'd lock himself in his
room with his laptop, and I wouldn't see him again 'til the next day, when I'd watch as the back of his latest
fashion disaster rushed down the road to catch the bus, battered bookcase in hand. It was the only panic I'd
ever seen in the boy. He seemed to go completely unmolested at school. I'm not sure if that was owed to his
considerable height or because my little brother was simply too unflappable to be worth bullying.
A week or so after he moved in, I gave him a new chore and spent some time explaining it to him.
"Sam, it's time for you to learn how to take out the trash."
He looked at me with a raised eyebrow. "Is this something we do differently in Kansas?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact, we do."
I showed him the large, galvanized rubber trashcans, and, more specifically, I showed him the special locking
bars to keep the raccoons out of the trash.
"You see, if you don't lock the trash cans, they'll open them up and drag the garbage all over the yard or all
over the street, and then we'll have to spend half the morning picking it up."
"Wild raccoons?" his eyes were wide. I wondered if I noted just a hint of fear.
"Well, yes, Sam, there's hardly any other type, is there?" He looked at me, dubious. "Sometimes they even
learn how to open the locks."
"You have to lock up your TRASH?" he asked, incredulous.
Sam then took over locking up the trash. In fact, it became a bit of a windmill for him to tilt. The first week
was a disaster. He'd carefully placed all the tied bags in the cans and twisted some rope through the handles
to hold the lids on. He didn't seem to be able to figure out how to use the locks I'd bought. The raccoons
quickly learned to untie the ropes. Rather than spending an extra fifteen minutes making sure his hair was a
perfect mess, he spent it picking up cereal boxes and Styrofoam containers and grapefruit peels out of the
ruts in the dirt on the side of the house.
He didn't complain — not once. In fact, he seemed bound and determined to get it right, to keep those trash
cans closed, come hell, high water, or mutant ninja raccoons with opposable thumbs and a deep-seated
knowledge of physics. Twist wires were the next step, then hanger wire. He wasn't about to ask me again
how to use the locks, I could tell. I'd watch from the kitchen window as he'd pick them up, twist the metal bars
back and forth, peering at them, trying to unravel their mystery. As he was with everything, he was incredibly
patient — whether it was fixing his hair, dressing for school, washing dishes or locking the trashcans. My
brother was the most deliberate person I'd ever met. Despite his caution and deliberation, the raccoons
always managed to undo his ropes and cords and pick through our garbage like old ladies at a flea market,
leaving wrappers and greasy papers all over the yard.
We quickly fell into a routine. I went to work, and he went to school. We shared a meal in the evening, a few
words, sometimes a news program, and then parted ways. Some mornings, I'd climb into my ugly, economy
car with the soundtrack of his profanity and his rants against raccoons floating over the hedge. He had quite
an interesting vocabulary for one so young. It made me laugh, and I'd gun the engine, as if to punctuate the
last "fuck" drifting through the chilly, autumn morning air.
I began to worry that he wasn't being parented in that old-fashioned American way of keeping people children
for as long as legally possible. Then I realized that pretty much any damage that could have been done by my
father and his fourth wife was probably done. There wasn't really much to be done on my part — even if I had
any clue what that would be. Sam was my brother, not my child. He wasn't anybody's child.
* * *
"So, how come you're not married?" he asked me one night, through a piece of some mystery meat covered in
tomato sauce that I'd nuked for dinner.
Too startled for the sharp retort such an impertinent question usually deserved, I just shrugged at him behind
my own forkful. "I dunno. Never really thought about it."
"Angela told me you were engaged once. She was laughing at the time, so I knew it must be true." Angela —
my father's fourth, and fatal, wife.
"You do go out, don't you?" he asked, as if it had just occurred to him. "I mean date. Men."
"I go out and have drinks with some of the other hospital staff, but I wouldn't call them dates. Not even when
they're men. How about you?" I asked, turning the question back on him. "Met anyone at school?" He blushed,
and I felt bad.
He shook his head and fell silent.
"I was engaged," I admitted. "It didn't work out. I haven't really met anyone here, yet."
"Don't you get lonely?" He looked appalled at his own candor, but he seemed to have something more on his
mind than just my love life. "Don't you get..." and he went beet red and was suddenly nothing more than the
17 years that his ID card claimed.
I didn't laugh, but I smiled. "I see a bit too much of people's insides, Sam, to get really sentimental about their
outsides, but, yeah. Who doesn't? I just haven't met anyone here yet. That's all."
"So what happened with your boyfriend?"
I wanted to tell him to mind his own business, then I remembered he didn't have anyone else. No one to warn
him about the potholes in the road, the maze of good intentions and broken promises that littered the path in
the mating game.
"His name was Todd, and he's was in the Army, too; he was a doctor. May still be, I don't know. We dated for
a few years, got engaged, planned a wedding. It wasn't that there was anything wrong about him, it's just
that there wasn't enough right. I couldn't shake the feeling that I was being gang-pressed into it? Do you
know what I mean?" How could he? I barely knew what I meant, even five years later. But Sam nodded. He
"When I told him that I wasn't going to change my name after we got married, he completely lost it. He
seemed to think it was the most important thing in the world I could do to show him I loved him, and he told
me that if I was unwilling to change my name, I couldn't possibly be serious about marrying him. But, I just
couldn't do it.
"That's when I realized I was just playing a part in his little drama — the story of Dr. Archer. Anyone could
have done it. After all, anyone could be Mrs. Archer, and she didn't have to be Dana. And so, she wasn't
Dana. And I still was. Make sense?"
He shook his head as if to settle his thoughts to bottom of his mind and picked up his half-empty plate. He
scraped it into the garbage pail and put his dish in the sink to soak.
Later that night, I stood at the sink washing the dishes and watched him argue with the trashcans. There he
stood in the light of the half moon, his crisp, white, cotton shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbows, his black boots
negotiating the mud holes. I watched his breath steam around his face in the chill and watched as it turned to
short, labored puffs as he pressed the lid down hard and wrapped it with bungee cords.
After a quiet and companionable month, between the drama of the trash cans, the monotony of my cooking
and the reserved caution of Sam's school life, we found ourselves startled out of the drone one evening by
hammering on the front door. We shot glances at each other, but I finally got to the door and opened it. And
there he was.
Sean Gordon had arrived.
He stood in the doorway, leaning against the frame with his hands stuffed into the pockets of his peacoat
against the cold. He looked at me with sullen black eyes through a sweep of dark hair. He was young — older
than my Sam but still undercooked to my eyes. He stood there on the porch with all the assurance of a man,
and the pout of a child. He was handsome, and he looked like he knew it.
I could feel Sam go tense behind me. Every muscle in his body clenched, and the escaping air of his gasp
hissed between his teeth.
"Sean." It was a whisper. It was a scream. It was horror and happiness in a single breath of relief.
The boy in the doorway dismissed me with his eyes, looked around me, looked through me, until they settled
on Sam, where he'd staggered back from the door.
"Angela told me where to find you."
"What are you doing here?" More horror from Sam, or more relief — I couldn't tell.
"Came to get you, of course. Just like we planned. Just like we talked about. Right?" The dark-haired boy
smiled. It was a hungry smile, even predatory.
"Why don't you come in?" I said and was ignored by both of them. Sean continued to dominate the doorway,
somehow giving the impression that one would have to chew through him to escape.
"How did you get here?"
"I drove, of course. All the way from Chicago. And to be honest, I'm half dead. Can I come in?" He looked at
me for just a moment, and he seemed to startle as if he hadn't actually seen me before. His brow furrowed,
and his eyes narrowed, as though weighing me up for prey or enemy, he couldn't decide yet. Either way, he
wore his thoughts on his face, and I dropped my original estimation of his age even further.
"I brought your stuff," he told Sam as he pushed by me. "It's all in the car, even the easel." It sounded like an
apology disguised as an excuse.
I shut the door and went into the kitchen to make some coffee, straining to hear what they said. But,
whatever they had to say to each other was exchanged in quiet tones that didn't make it past the sound of
water filling the pot, the ker-lunk of my cup being placed on the counter, the panicked beating of my heart.
"We've talked about this for months, Sam," he was saying when I finally came back into the living room. "I've
already found us a place to stay, and Jules says she can get me a job."
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"Sean and I were thinking of moving to New York after I finish high school," Sam said. He seemed regretful to
admit it, as though it were far too clichéd an ambition for him.
"But you're not finished with school, Sam," I said. "Besides, Dad has already set up arrangements for college,
hasn't he?" I sat down on the couch and sipped my coffee, eyeing the two young men who had squared off in
the middle of my living room, with its dusty corners and worn carpet and overall atmosphere of neglect.
I thought they were going to come to blows, but I noticed that Sam started to slump, even with his fists
clenched. Like he already knew he would lose any fight he ever had with the other boy. He seemed resigned.
In fact, he looked as though he were looking forward to the bruises.
Sean, much sturdier than Sam, much more confident, arrogant, cocky even, stood there in his coat still, with a
crooked grin, every muscle tensed, except for a strange sparkle in his eyes.
Sean laughed. "College?" He seemed to relax then and shook off his coat. Sam fell into an old chair I had
gotten from the church thrift sale. The strange boy sat down next to me. "Sam doesn't need to go to
college," he laughed. "He's a genius. Haven't you ever seen his paintings?"
I looked at my brother, who looked away.
"I've brought everything, Sam," Sean said, pleading. "Your brushes, your paints, even the acrylics. Even the
watercolors — even though you never use them. You left all your paintings behind. Why?"
Sam said nothing, and Sean patted me on the knee, excited. "Your brother is fucking genius, I'm telling you."
So, that was the dream. They were going to high-tail it to the big city and set Sam up for fame and fortune,
because after all — he was a genius. I supposed Sean was going to wait tables or something to support them
both. Sam could work too, between inspirations. It was the dream, wasn't it? Sam didn't look sure. In fact,
he seemed embarrassed by the whole thing.
"I didn't have any way to take them on the plane, did I?" he snapped. "Besides, what were you doing rooting
around in my room? You ransacked my bedroom?"
Sean, looking young and vulnerable for the first time since he'd walked in the door, shook his head, whispering,
"Angela let you in to do that, did she?" Sam was livid now, shaking and red-faced.
Sean simply shrugged. "I brought everything." His eyes went soft then, looking at Sam. "You promised."
Sam could only stare back, and, although his eyes glittered with rage, his body sagged with some hopeless
"Look guys," I said, trying to break the tension. "It's late, and I have work in the morning, and Sam's got
school. In case you missed the point," I said glaring at Sean, "Sam is still in high school and has to be on the
bus by 7:30."
"I'll drive him."
"That doesn't matter — it's late and time to call it a night." I rose and put my coffee cup in the sink, regretting
that I'd had any of it at all, and switched off the pot.
When I walked back into the living room, Sean was kneeling on the floor next to Sam with one hand on his
knee and the other gesturing wildly. He looked a bit like an old minstrel showman.
"Sam," I said, "He can sleep here. There isn't anywhere else. He can sleep in your room. There's some extra
blankets in the closet in there."
Sam looked at Sean and shook his head. "No, he can sleep on the couch. Is that alright?" With the last he
looked at me, and I could read something in his eyes that was a bit like a plea, and a bit like fury. I shrugged.
"Just take out the trash first."
I went into my room, stripped down and threw on an old nightshirt while the sound of Sam wrestling with the
trashcans penetrated the windows.
My night was filled with the sound of their arguments, their debates, a door slamming. I tossed through it on
the edge of caffeine-twisted consciousness, biting back the urge to intervene, to protect my brother, to
discover this bizarre promise that hung between them.
The next morning, I showered and tossed on the tired whites, reheated last night's coffee and poked my head
into the living room. The couch was empty, but a blanket lay there, pushed back and crumpled, and a small
pile of keys, change, and other pocket debris lay on the floor. Perhaps, they had made up — if they were ever
really fighting. Perhaps they had fallen asleep while sitting on the floor talking about the good, old days back in
Chicago, or the good, new days to follow in New York. Whatever had happened, Sam's bedroom door lay
decidedly and deliberately closed. I took that as a lesson to mind my own and left for work.
The house was dark when I got home, and the evening gloom was seeping in through the gaps in the window
frames and under the door. Nothing more insidious than the early evening of a Midwestern autumn, in my
experience. It seemed to stifle everything and any noise or life after dark was treated like an intrusion on the
hibernation of some large and dangerous animal. Everything in the air — the color of the sunset, the chill of
the wind, was an incitement to hush.
The living room was dark, and only a strip of yellow light from under Sam's bedroom door betrayed any life in
the place. I could even hear the electric hum of the coffeepot that I'd forgotten to shut off that morning.
There was a sense of something behind Sam's door, some activity, at least the feel of it, and I walked over,
tapped on the door and opened it a few inches.
Sean was lying on the bed completely naked and smiling at someone across the room. He was wild-animal
gorgeous — olive skinned, smoothly muscled — covered in wild-animal fur.
"Oh fuck!" I said, slamming the door. "Sorry!" I mentally upped my estimate of his age again.
I heard a peal of light laughter on the other side, and Sam called out to me.
"It's okay Dana. C'mon back in."
As deliberately as Sam ever could in his dreams, I slowly inched the door open, keeping my eyes down and
sneaking an occasional peek up through my lashes. I couldn't decide if it was to make sure Sean was covered
or to catch him before he was. He was. I pushed the door open the rest of the way.
Sam was sitting on the milk crate behind a short easel on the other side of the room. He was wearing nothing
but shorts and holding a brush. He had blue paint in his hair. He had umber on his thigh, and hunter green,
streaked by careless fingers, across his chest.
Sean had covered himself with a blue blanket. He wore umber paint in his black hair and a grin. He seemed to
be enjoying all the attention he was getting. I assumed an air of educated curiosity and stood behind Sam to
take a look at the canvas.
Sam had found a way to capture everything about Sean that was irresistible and set it in paint. Every
intriguing swirl of belly fur, every sleek strand of hair that slashed across his face like a challenge to both comb
and fingers, right down to the slightly mad glint in his eyes. The promise that hung between them was in
there, too. It was indefinable — a certain painted color of light. It swept over the painting of the young man,
caressing the skin and set it flaming into gold. It stroked the reclined figure where it lie on the bed, and left it
open, supple, and wanting. The promise hung over the canvas — waiting to be fulfilled. The pose was modest
with a carefully bent knee, but the face held what could only be called a fierce and naked hunger.
I swallowed. I swallowed hard.
And, suddenly, I had to reassess my opinion of everything. Suddenly, everything I knew about anything was
completely wrong. I wasn't sure where my perspective would settle once my life stopped spinning, but I knew I
was going to land somewhere facing a direction I had never considered before.
Because Sean was right — Sam was a genius.
I didn't count the days that followed, punctuated only by their frequent arguments, set within the parentheses
of my hospital shifts. I didn't mind Sean being there, except for their arguments, which were usually too late
at night, always too often, and generally left Sam in a shattered state. Sean started doing the dishes and even
made dinner. He was a much better cook than I was. The one thing Sam wouldn't allow Sean to do was take
out the trash.
One night after work, I found Sam standing on the side of the house, in his long impossible coat. I suspected
he was crying — he and Sean had had another one of their louder blow-ups. I made sure to make some noise,
let him know I was standing there. But he wasn't crying. He was smiling, standing inside a ring of raccoons.
There must have been six or seven of them, and they were looking up at him, half with hope and half with
distrust. He was carefully picking pieces of food scraps out of a paper bag and carefully distributing them
amongst his little congregation — a primitive communion of human and wild.
"What are you doing?" I asked him, rather pointlessly.
"I'm feeding the raccoons. They're hungry. They're not trying to trash the yard."
"Yeah, Sam, but they get used to being fed, and the minute you're not here to dish up the grub, they're in the
He squatted down, and the raccoons jumped back, and a couple of them hissed. "You see, Dana? Despite the
fact that I'm standing here giving them food, they're still scared of me. They're too hungry to resist taking
their chances." He handed out a few more pieces of stale bread.
"Funny old things, really. They just want to eat, and I just want to feed them. I don't know why. Maybe it's a
way of feeling like I'm still part of the process. We live in concrete boxes and talk over wires, and it's as
though thousands of years of living in caves and hunting in packs with stone tipped spears never happened."
"But we're still a part of it. Or we should be." He glanced up at me and smiled. "I guess this is the only way I
can feel like I'm any part of the whole thing. Real life, you know? Where you get too hungry to resist taking
your chances. There's no danger anymore, no risk left. It's all too easy."
"Besides, how can I resist those eyes?" he said, chuckling. They, indeed, glared at him mournfully, their
whiskers bristling with barely repressed hope and hostility.
"By paying some attention to those ravening teeth would be my guess, Sam," I said. "They're going to bite
you, if you're not careful."
"Yeah, I think that's part of the thrill, too." He grinned at me as he stood up and dumped the contents of the
paper sack onto the ground.
* * *
Another round of days followed. If there was any more painting, I didn't see any evidence of it, though I
assumed that their pursuits of artistic perfection (whether they included painting or not) stayed behind Sam's
firmly and deliberately closed door.
For the most part, I saw little of Sean, except at dinner, where he lorded over the meal like a proud housewife,
dishing out starchy dishes dripping with butter onto plates with admonitions to "eat up." In fact, as we settled
into December, I was starting to feel a bit of a pinch around the waist of my uniform. I was going to have to
have a talk with him about salads.
The only good thing about being posted to Bumfuck, Kansas was the lack of broken, bullet-ridden bodies to be
repaired, so I had Saturdays off. At least the schedule was light, even if there wasn't anything to do with all
the free time, except drink and stare into the cornfields — an amusement that one started taking seriously a
few months into the assignment.
Saturdays were slow, and I slept in as a rule, puttering in the kitchen over my coffee. One Saturday morning, I
found myself pouring in the water, staring out the window at the frosted weeds in the yard, when Sean padded
in, sleep-strewn, puffy-eyed, rubbing his hands through his hair. He stopped, startled by my presence, and I
instinctively clutched my robe close around my neck. He rubbed his face and grinned at me.
"Morning," I said, pulling a clean cup out of the cupboard. I recalled a time in college when I'd woken up in my
dorm room to find that my roommate had brought home some local boy. They'd been so drunk; they didn't
even notice I was there. They'd smoked and drank and fucked loudly, while I'd laid there, frozen, pretending to
be asleep. In the morning, the local boy had also grinned at me and rubbed his face at me, and acted like he
had every right to be there.
He was just like Todd. Todd would just stand there with a stupid, knowing smile on his face, expecting you to
put up with whatever he gave you, expecting you to give him whatever he wanted — simply because he was
Some people are just like that — they fit into the world, wherever they are. Or they make the world fit around
them. As far as I could tell, I'd never be like them. I've always had to find a way to change myself to fit the
shape of the world, to adjust, to manage. I envy them, and I despise them, because, against all sense of fair
play, they simply get whatever they want by the sheer audacity of expecting it.
Sean was obviously one of those people. He'd moved in with us and found a way to wrap Sam around his
finger. I knew it was just a matter of time before he'd convince Sam to go to New York. Things like that
always work out for people like Sean. They get what they want, simply by being them.
"Mind if I have some coffee?" he asked. It was a strange question coming from someone who'd been living
there for two months, who cooked and cleaned and had insinuated themselves into every corner of the
household. I'd even found his jeans mixed up with my fatigues in the laundry. He had expected to be
welcomed in and made a part of the family — so, of course, he had been.
I shrugged and pulled down an extra cup from the cupboard. "Sam still asleep?"
In two months time, I had never spoken to Sean outside my brother's presence. In fact, it was a bit like an
assignment to a foreign hospital, constantly followed around by an interpreter just in case you couldn't
remember the Arabic word for "hemorrhage" and you just had to hope that he was sharp enough to keep
anyone from bleeding to death. Our interpreter was still in bed, probably covered in paint.
Sean murmured something in the positive, and I turned to pour out my coffee. As I ladled in the artificial
sweetener, thinking of my waistband, he came up behind and lightly began touching my hair. I could just
barely feel his chest against my back and shoulder, but I could definitely feel his warm breath against my neck.
He picked up the messy strands and then let them drop back slowly, piece by piece. As each one fell back,
brushing my against neck, my shoulders, my face, it raised goosebumps on my arms and painful electric fire
shot through my thighs.
"You've got hair like Sam's, you know." he said. His breath was too sweet for morning, and the stupid but well-
educated part of my brain whispered "diabetes?" I told it to shut up.
"But Sam's is... " That was me, always arguing details at inappropriate times.
He chuckled. "Sam bleaches his hair. Didn't you know?" I shook my head. "Yours looks like his did when I
first met him. Warm and gold — like caramel." He'd run out of the hair tangled around his fingers and began
to stroke the back of my neck with his fingertips. I kept my eyes firmly on my coffee, while my nervous system
shut down in thrill and terror.
Sean backed away and leaned against the counter. He gently removed the coffee spoon from my hand and
began pouring sugar into his own cup. I could hear him swallow, clearing his throat, and I could even hear him
taking the mental run up for his next sentence. Funny how you can actually hear the firing of neurons in
someone else's brain when time has stood still out of its pure shock at current events.
"Sam tells me," he said hoarsely, "that you sometimes go out for drinks after work."
I nodded dumbly.
"Maybe I could join you some time. I've been here a couple of weeks," (Two months, you bastard!) "and I
haven't had any chance to get to know you." (That's because you've been busy getting naked for my little
brother, you jerk!)
"You're a very pretty woman," he said, as if this were a reason for having a drink. The need for a drink in
Kansas does not require the excuse of a pretty woman, or any kind of woman. Being in Kansas was enough of
an excuse for drinking alone.
"Oh, but I thought... " and I looked at him, puzzled, my brow furrowed. I hate when it does that, but I've
discovered that my brow isn't under my own control most of the time. I'm told I look angry and cross —
mostly I'm just confused.
"What?" He looked sincerely puzzled, but not bothered by my confusion. He just stared into my eyes. I
vowed that it was definitely damn well time to check his ID and finally find out how old he was.
"What did you think?" he repeated.
"Oh, well... " (Think, Dana, think!) "I just figured... " I shrugged. "You know... since you were a friend of
Sam's," (Okay, girl, pull it out of the nose dive.) "That, you know, you weren't probably old enough to get
served." I smiled at him weakly. "I couldn't imagine you'd be interested in going out with a bunch of drunken
nurses." I shot him the eyebrows, again. "I mean, we tend to go on about catheters and things. It's not very
He laughed and touched my hair again, but I was saved the slow, delicious torture of having it fondled, and he
turned back to finish stirring his coffee. Another part of my brain — not the educated part, but the educating
part, the one that throws pop-quizzes — became a bit worried all of a sudden about what I could possibly look
like, standing in the kitchen in my fuzzy robe and winter underwear and the cold thin light of December on my
face. I told that one to shut up, too.
"Well, just let me know." He smiled. "I promise not to embarrass you in front of your friends." He dropped
the spoon on the counter and picked up his cup. "Not even during the ID check."
He headed back to the warmth of the bedroom and left me there with my confusion. Another spin, and I still
hadn't landed anywhere long enough to take a good look around and see where I stood.
* * *
About a week before Christmas, I came home to find the house brightly lit. As I opened the front door and
stepped through, I found my living room covered in streamers, music blaring on my old stereo, and balloons
floating to the top of the ceiling, in danger of being punctured on the cheap, texturizing spackle.
Sean drifted through to the kitchen, throwing me a big smile, carrying wrapped presents and whistling along
with the music.
Sam's birthday. I'd forgotten.
In those years that he spent as a faded photograph in my jumble of memories, one of the reasons I rarely
remembered Sam's birthday was because it was so close to Christmas. Sometimes I'd remember his birthday
and forget to send anything for Christmas. Sometimes I'd forget about his birthday and send along
something for Christmas. Sometimes I'd forget the whole thing, hoping that the sheer, breathless
unexpectedness when I actually did remember made up for the years that I didn't. Strange logic, but the only
kind you can have when you're spending most of your days up to the elbows in damaged bodies.
Sean had found the "good china" — which around here meant not plastic. He'd found flatware that almost
matched. There was a well-intentioned but sloppily decorated chocolate cake on the counter and spaghetti
sauce simmering on the stove. There was even garlic bread. Sam's favorites.
And we waited.
He looked at the clock every few minutes and paced. I pretended to watch television, but it was just an excuse
to watch Sean pace. I couldn't believe I'd frozen like that the other morning. Had it been so long since a man
touched my hair that I no longer knew how to respond? Did I find him attractive? Of course I did. In my
defense, I thought he was in love, or in something, with my brother, but that didn't stop me from admiring his
muscular arms or his rebellious hair or the mad glint in his eyes. In fact, I'd found them impossible not to think
about when the emptiness of my bed seemed particularly sharp and immediate, and I found myself making my
I didn't know what to say to him, could only come up with ways to avoid talking to him at all. I found nothing
in me but excuses to get away. And that was not like me, not like me at all. It certainly wasn't the Dana I'd
known and been in the days before the Dr. Archer Debacle. Had I saved Dana the Person, only to lose Dana
the Woman? It bore some examination, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I thought there might be quick
answers found in the tightly wound young man pacing my living room.
And here we were. But he didn't seem interested in touching me now, or flirting. At 7:30, he gave up and
nodded towards the kitchen. I walked in to find him slamming the food dishes onto the table. He'd even made
We sat and ate the cold, gummy spaghetti, and I wasn't about to say a word about it. I could see the
agitation jumping through his nerves. He sat with a hundred-yard stare, shoving food in his mouth and
chewing as if to make the world's spaghetti farmers pay for his disappointment.
"So," I said, taking a drink of the cheap wine he'd poured. "Where did you meet Sam?"
He looked at me and then at his plate. "It's hard to say. I met Sam at school a couple of years ago,
originally." He chewed some more and drank his own wine. Rather quickly.
"You couldn't have gone to school... " He'd bought the wine, so he must have been telling the truth that
"I was teaching." He noticed the lines of disapproval starting to form on my face. "Well, I was interning,
actually, going to college to be an art teacher. I was helping out at Sam's high school for a couple of weeks,
needed it for credit. He's got a lot of talent, your brother. A real gift." I nodded. That was made very clear to
"But I didn't meet him properly until a few months ago. Found him at an after-hours club. You know what
those are, right?" I did, nightclubs that turned off the taps and turned up the lights and music and made a
few extra bucks selling virgin cocktails to the underage crowd who were pressing at the doors wanting to dance
and pretend they were as mindless and superficial as real grown-ups. I always found that it made last call a bit
more depressing. Especially when they turned the lights up.
"It was kind of surreal," he said, taking another drink of wine. "I'd had too much to drink and fell asleep at one
of the tables. I didn't even notice when they shut down the bar and let the kids in."
"Anyway, when I came to, there was Sam, sitting across the table, sketching me as I slept." He stopped to
reach for some garlic bread. "He knew I wasn't up to driving, so he took me back to Angela's and let me sleep
it off on the couch."
He chuckled, "Angela, yes. Quite a woman, Angela."
I gave him the eyebrow, and he just looked away. But he smiled as he did so.
"My friend Jules, from college, found a job for me in New York. Teaching at a private school. I have to get up
there before the end of winter break." He twirled some spaghetti absently around his fork. "Your brother has
real talent, Dana. There's a place for him there. There really is. But he needs to be where the buyers are,
where the galleries are. Chicago is one thing, but here...?" He motioned with the forkful of spaghetti to
indicate the artistic void that was Riley, Kansas.
"Why are you so interested in Sam?" I'd had enough. This man had touched my hair and had stolen my
brother's peace of mind, and I thought that entitled me to some answers. "What do you care what happens
to Sam? For fuck's sake, Sean, he's only 17 years old."
"Eighteen, fine! But he's still in high school, he's still a kid, and he's still my little brother. What do you care if
he can paint or not? Why do you care if he's got talent — if he's a 'genius'?"
Sean looked up at me then, the mad glint in his eyes was gone, as was the arrogance, as was the agitated
flexing of his neck muscles. His eyes were flat and his voice was flat, and he'd found some calm pool in the
middle of his truth. "Because, Dana — I can't. Because I don't. Because I'm not."
Before I could launch into the tirade that had been bubbling under my surface for months — the one about
how his interest in my brother could be considered unnatural, excessive, unhealthy, perhaps, at least until
today, illegal, Sam burst through the front door, dragging in the cold with him, covered with snow and grinning.
He saw us at the table. He saw the decorations. He saw the cake. His face fell.
"Oh. I'm sorry." He slumped and shrugged off his coat. "I didn't know," he said, his eyes pleading. "I didn't
realize... Some friends took me out to eat for my... " Then his voice dropped into a whisper, "...birthday." he
"No big deal," said Sean, his voice still low and dead. "We've still got cake."
Sam cut the cake and handed it around on plates and we ate quietly. He was ashamed of his social gaffe, but
Sean let him off the hook with a pat on the back and a genuine smile. I was still too shaken from my time
alone with Sean, from our conversation, but I had some of the cake and kissed my brother on the cheek and
called it an early night.
* * *
I didn't celebrate Christmas. I never do. Since I never even know if I'll be working or where I'll be working, I've
just gotten out of the habit of making an occasion of it. It just seems a futile effort. Sam and Sean, however,
seemed to have every intention of celebrating. Sam was out of school until after the New Year, so they spent
their days with Sam making ornaments and Sean baking cookies.
I did manage to cadge some leave on Christmas Day, however. I gave the Chief Nurse a sob story about my
poor brother, home alone, just lost his dad, time to strengthen family bonds and make up for lost years and a
lot of other bullshit. She signed my leave request and handed it over with sardonic eyes.
Sean pulled out all the stops on Christmas Eve, roasting a ham, making sweet potatoes from scratch, even
baking a Christmas cake, covered in coconut for the snow. My groaning scale was looking forward to his New
Year New York deadline.
He'd also made eggnog, from scratch. Not the overly thick, overly sweet crap you buy in cartons, but the real
stuff, light and fluffy, thin as milk and as alcoholic as my father's second wife. Inhaling the fumes alone would
put you at risk for a DUI. Sean and Sam made the mistake of starting in on the eggnog before dinner, and
after three cups, they were too drunk to slice the ham without risk of serious injury. I hacked off a few slices
and we made sandwiches and put the rest in the fridge.
The eggnog, we finished. Two-thirds of the way down the punch bowl, with alcohol-infused logic, I decided it
would be a good idea to get out of my uniform and into something reasonably attractive. I thought that if
Sean touched my hair again that night, I might find out where I'd put the part of me that once responded so
easily. I swayed into my room and pulled things out of the closet and out of drawers. Something soft,
something accessible, something loose, something sexy... I didn't seem to own anything like that at all. I'd
brought my cup in with me and finished the rest of it, panicked, wishing I'd shaved my legs that morning,
wondering if I should brush my teeth, and finally settling on a pair of cotton pyjama bottoms and a T-shirt and
a few dashes of perfume. It would have to do.
When I got back into the living room, Sam and Sean were sitting on the carpet, leaning against the battered
couch, deep in argument. This time is sounded less like a fight and more like a debate.
"You don't know anything about passion, Sean – that's why you can't paint," Sam was saying. "That's why
you can't create anything from your soul. You think you can talk the colors into the right places, to charm the
clay into the right shape, but it doesn't work like that." My brother was completely sloshed, and, from all
appearances, he was a cruel drunk.
"You have to want it with all your heart, all your skin, in your bones," Sean countered. "You have to be willing
to take risks." Ah, Sean — our philosophic drunk.
I poured the last cup of eggnog and settled into the old recliner. Sean's head was bowed over his bent knees,
and his hands were clasped in front of him. I could see the tension rippling through his shoulders. Neither of
them were paying me any attention. They'd built some kind of bonfire out of their arguments and their
promises, and they were too wrapped in the flames to see what lay outside of that circle of burning light.
"And you can't paint anymore than you can love, and for the same reasons," Sam said. "You think you can say
the right things, and I'll follow you. You think you can convince me that you know what's best for me. But I
don't trust anything you say, anymore."
Sean turned to him, searching Sam's face. Sam was biting down on his lower lip, trying to hold back things
that desperately wanted to come out, but couldn't. Not even drunk as he was, would Sam let those words
out. It didn't seem to matter, because Sean seemed to already know what they were.
"I'm sorry," Sean whispered. Sam looked up at him, and I could catch a glimpse of the tears that welled just
shy of falling in the kaleidoscope colors of the Christmas tree lights.
"You said," Sam said.
"In the scope of things, it doesn't matter, does it? What matters is that you should be painting, Sam; you
should be in New York where your work will be seen, where you will be seen. Where you can meet the right
"I thought I had."
Sean reached up to ruffle Sam's blond hair, and Sam flinched away. A real hair-toucher, our Sean, I thought, a
real tactile sort of person. But I was held breathless and still by the tension, my every muscle clenched in
sympathy with my brother's clenched teeth.
"You should come with me, Sam. Whatever you feel about me. You have a gift, Sam. You owe it to that gift
to take risks, to give it a chance — to give me another chance. Even if you can never forgive me. Even if I'm
not the person you thought I was, New York can be the place you dream it can be."
Sam pulled away and using the arm of the couch, carefully stood his drunken and lanky frame up. He
staggered a little, but steadied himself with a deep breath.
"Don't you lecture me about risks, god damn it! You don't have the nerve to strip away to your very core, and
you don't have the fucking guts to just let go. You know all the right things to say, the right things to do, the
right people to meet. You know all the words, but you'll never hear the music.
"I feel sorry for you, Sean. You might never know what that's like, to have every cell of your fucking head
wrapped up in the violent throws of something beautiful and uncontrollable. I feel sorry for you. But I don't
feel sorry enough to let you try to find it by eating me alive."
He staggered into the kitchen, and we could hear him ripping the trash bag out of the kitchen can.
I was suddenly sick and sober, and I stared at the dark young man across the room from me. His eyes met
"Did you sleep with my...?" My voice had gone hoarse with the bile rising in my throat.
Before I could finish the sentence, Sean was shaking his head. He looked old and sad and sorry.
"He told me he was in love with me..." he shrugged. "But no, I didn't. I... won't."
He looked away then, picked up his cup and swirled the dregs of his nog around inside, watching them as
though the tiny cyclone was the most fascinating thing in the world. Again, I could hear the thoughts churning
in his head while they fluttered and fell into some sort of order.
"Sam," he croaked, "deserves to be loved by someone who can. He's not wrong about me. I wish he were."
He drank the rest of his eggnog.
"And knowing this, you're still asking him to go with you to New York?" I was stunned.
His answer, if he had one, was swallowed by Sam's reappearance at the doorway, clutching a trash bag and a
bowl of scraps for the raccoons. He stared at Sean for a moment, then hurried out the front door.
I found him bent over near the trashcans, surrounded by his usual congregation. They were less tentative
now, friendlier, standing up on their hind legs to reach for food. Sam wasn't smiling, but he seemed at peace.
"You okay?" I asked him.
He nodded, doling out a small piece of ham to a particularly insistent raccoon.
"He can't help it, Sam," I said, stupidly. "You can't ask him to be something he's not."
"I've finally figured it out. You know what the biggest problem people have with raccoons, Dana?" he said.
"Raccoons are okay, as long as people don't expect them to act like anything other than raccoons."
He smiled and stood up. "He can't ask me to be something I'm not, either."
I woke very late the next day. Christmas morning. I remember Christmas mornings waking up to a new world,
one ripe with possibilities. It wasn't just the gifts under the tree, the lure of the unknown contents of
packages holding a promise that I'd be happier person for opening them. It was the change of light, the point
where the earth changed direction and you could feel it, the hope of spring, the turn of the earth towards the
This Christmas I awoke with a clanging hangover and a bitter stomach, only partially owed to the high proof of
dinner. I laid in bed, listening for the aftershocks of the evenings debate. After Sam finished with the trash,
he had gone straight to his room and again his door was deliberately and emphatically closed. The only
difference was that Sean was deliberately and emphatically on the other side of it.
I had fallen into bed, only to wake up late the next day, the sun screaming through the window, my slippers
still on from when I'd shuffled into them before venturing outside to console my brother. They were wet from
the snow, my eyes were crusted, my teeth had moss on the north side, and I was pretty sure I needed to
throw up at some point. But I waited and listened. For slamming doors, shouts, accusations, pleas, whatever
the morning mayhem had to offer. There was nothing.
I crawled out of bed and headed for the coffeepot. Sean was sitting at the kitchen table and already half way
through the pot before I found it. I sloshed some into a cup and sat down across from him. His eyes were
red and his face was swollen under a layer of stubble. I didn't say anything, I figured that I looked as bad,
minus the stubble.
"I should leave today," he muttered in my direction.
"It's Christmas day," I said.
"Even better. Less traffic."
"You're not going to try to change Sam's mind?"
"If I haven't changed it by now, I'll never change it, will I?" he said, bitterly.
"He loves you," I said.
"He thinks he does, or he used to think he did. Before he found me with Angela."
"He still does," I said, knowing it was true. After all, he was my brother, I should know. We had the same
pride, the same hard core that would rather be alone and lonely than compromise.
"It doesn't matter. What matters is his art. He thinks he loves me, and he offers bits and pieces and
promises of great things to come with every piece, every painting. And I guess," he laughed, "he thinks I've
been doing the same. I guess he thought it was because he was only 17."
"You did tell him that you're not gay, didn't you?" I asked, again stupidly.
"Sam doesn't even know if he's gay — he's just a kid. He fell in love, or thinks he did, and suddenly he expects
the birds to start singing. He just feels something and thinks it's the right thing to do; he just goes with
whatever he feels. He doesn't stop and think about what he's doing."
"He seems to have stopped to think long enough about not going to New York."
Sean scowled at me, and with his puffy eyes and day's growth of beard and tired, world-weary sardonic eyes, I
finally settled on somewhere around 23. It would be the last time I would guess, or try to.
"That's true," he allowed, blinking at me. "What he doesn't realize is that he can't let his romanticism
overcome his ability to make wise career moves."
"I think," I said, running a finger around the rim of my cup, "that Sam is only half right about you. He said you
would never be a great painter because you lack passion."
"Yes, he did. And he will never be a discovered artist because he lacks focus."
"And you think that he can simply turn off his heart and follow you and concentrate on his career while you
stand over his shoulder at every turn?"
"I think that's what he should do, yes."
"That's why, I think, you never will be a great painter," I said. I reached up and brushed the hair from his face,
out of his black eyes. "Because you could do that."
He had nothing to say to that, shrugged and concentrated on his coffee. I stroked his hair, I'd been wanting
to touch it for months, and in deference to my brother whom I loved, I would never know what it felt like
brushing across my breasts or watch it streaking across my belly in it's anarchistic way. But I would steal this
moment, just for myself, just for now.
I could also feel sorry for Sean. There was no more envy.
That evening, Sam watched as Sean packed his few belongings into an old gym bag. Fortified with a thermos
bottle of hot coffee and a paper bag of ham sandwiches, he stood at the door and shrugged on the peacoat
he'd originally shown up with. He had on a rather stupid looking cabby's hat, but it suited him. He was
handsome enough to pull it off and he knew it.
I gave Sean a quick hug goodbye. Sam stood back, his face betraying nothing. Sean looked up at him,
waiting, "after all this?" in his eyes. Sam held out his hand, and Sean seemed defeated and resigned. His face
twisted in a grimace as he took Sam's hand to shake it. Sam pulled the man into a hug and buried his face in
his scarf-wrapped neck. Sean hugged him back tightly, and I looked away until I felt the cold air hit me as the
"See ya," I said, and Sean gave me a small smile.
"You call me if you change your mind, okay?" he said to Sam, who was standing, stiff-backed and stoic.
And then Sean Gordon was gone.
* * *
Sam and I quickly fell back into our old routine. I'm not sure what he was doing as the rest of his winter break
days wound down, but he seemed to be busy in his room behind the deliberately closed door. I hoped he was
painting. If he couldn't paint his joy, I hoped, at least, he could color in his pain and make some sense of it.
A few days after Sean left, I followed Sam out into the dark night. I had some leftovers from my packed lunch,
and I wanted to find out what strange satisfaction he got from feeding the raccoons.
He squatted there in the semi-circle of bandit-faced mammals. Their tails were twitching in anticipation, and
one of them had become brave enough to come up to him and take food out of his hand. I watched quietly.
"How ya doin', sis?" he asked me. I shrugged in my coat and made a non-committal noise.
"You know, it's kind of scary how much they've come to trust me," he murmured. "I could grab any one of
them, but they don't believe I can, now. They don't think I will. That's what having it too easy will do."
I said nothing. He was right. He was wrong.
"You know, Sam," I said, "you could still go to New York, if you change your mind."
"I will, Dana, I will. Maybe Angela's generosity and sense of guilt will stretch as far as NYU. You never know."
"What do you want, Sam?"
"Sometimes people don't really know what they want. They think they want something, but it turns out that
it's not good for them."
"I think Sean really cared for you, you know." I watched my brother's thin shoulders as he shrugged again,
unable to answer either way. We were good at The Shrug, Sam and I. "I think he really was just thinking of
what was best for you, in his own way."
"Yeah, well," he said, standing, groaning a little. I heard a knee pop. "Sean's always been so keen on doing
things the right way. I think I'll go to college first and then see what's left of me. Either way, I can't be his pet
boy painter anymore than you could be Mrs. Archer, you know?" And I was reminded again, Sam was my
brother, not my child. He wasn't anybody's child. He'd proven that.
"He said that you're a very gifted painter, Sam. He was right about that."
Sam tossed the last of the scraps to the raccoons. They dove on the remainders of our lunches, our dinners,
the things we didn't want anymore, the morsels we felt we could do without. They'd been tamed in their
desperate hungry state, and now they depended on him. From now on, when they were hungry, they would
look for Sam.
He crumpled his paper lunch bag and shoved it in the pocket of his unbearable, impractical and fashionable
topcoat. He smiled at me.
"Yeah, but it's my gift, isn't it?" He winked.
I took his hand, and we went back inside my little house of plywood and corrugated steel, and, inside the warm
light and shabby comfort, we waited to be rescued.
On our own terms, of course.
Sarah MacManus lives in the center of the United States and has just completed her first novel. In
her spare time she rescues princes from ravening monsters and makes meat pasties, not
particularly in that order. She can be reached at email@example.com