|Lord of the Trash
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 cans."
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 Todd.
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 interesting."
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 own arrangements.
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 a salad.
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 morning.
"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 me.
"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 finished lamely.
"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 people."
"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 mine.
"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 sun again.
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 door opened.
"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.