Next to the Fridge

My brother is in a box on a shelf next to the refrigerator in my sister Carol Lynn’s garage in Florida. The fridge is next to the door into the kitchen and holds soft drinks and ice. There is constant activity in the garage. It’s the site of all the comings and goings of my sister and her husband, their grown-up children, and the slew of grandchildren regularly charging through, wearing holiday clothes, or ball gloves, wet bathing suits or monster masks—they all come through the garage. Nobody uses the front door except strangers.

Davey has been dead just over a year, his box of ashes waiting, most of the time forgotten. I don’t think about him, not even weekly, and I doubt my sisters do. He’s not pressuring us.

Neither Marianne nor I have made it back down. We haven’t been there since the day he died. I’m in New Jersey. Marianne, my oldest sister, is in her new townhouse in Kansas City, Missouri. Kansas City, Kansas, is a pit, she says; it’s not really anything at all. But Kansas City, Missouri, has the Chiefs, the Royals, and great barbecue. She is irritated no one has come to visit.

 

We have gathered before, the three of us, when our little brother has been sick. Not dying, just sick. On those occasions he always enjoyed the attention. He didn’t like it this time—that we were there, that we were prepared to wait. Perhaps he thought things might turn out differently if we weren’t all there.

When the doctor told Carol Lynn to get in touch with any family, she called both of us. I arrived first. When she and I told Davey that Marianne was coming in that evening from Kansas City, he rolled his eyes and pinched his lips together.

He had to know he was dying—we all knew, the doctors, the nurses—but he never once admitted it. Instead he was filled with wanting. That was what really struck me; that there was so much he still wanted. Twenty-four hours before he went into a coma, he was asking me to bring him oysters, fried oysters from Fat Bob’s BBQ on Ramona Drive. They had to be Fat Bob’s oysters. The best barbecue and the best fried oysters—like dueling specialties. You don’t find that too often, he said. They weren’t the same from anyplace else. As he was asking me to take my rental car and drive over to Ramona to buy him fried oysters, he lay levered-up in his hospital bed, wrapped in his sheets like a mummy, motionless except for his hands.

Davey had big hands, wide, with knuckles like knobs. I don’t believe he ever worked a year straight, but when he worked, he worked as a carpenter. When he wasn’t buying, or dealing, or running away. A carpenter—and a scrapper. Our father gave him the title after he left an older, bigger boy, who had felt entitled to bully him, crying with a split lip by the slippery slide; Davey had been five.

His knuckles had been busted by hammers, boards, the windshield of his car, and the bones of other guys’ faces. But when he was asking me to go for oysters, those hands (really, all he had the strength to move, besides rolling his eyes) made these small, delicate motions in the air as he described Fat Bob’s fried oysters—his fingers touching together, gently pinching, then opening out like the oysters were right there for us to see. The batter was so thin, he said, it was like a watercolor wash—not all wadded up with breading. He made an icky face. And they were fresh, his hands moved in the air like a play, and his eyes, sunk deeper in his skull than I thought a living person’s eyes could sink, were bright and all crinkly at the sides like he was happy just imagining them. When he paused Marianne gave him a spoon of ice chips. It made his lips moist. He wanted one of us, me or Marianne (Carol Lynn was at home, catching up on things there), to go right then and get the oysters.

The first day I was there, the same day I landed, I went out and bought him his favorite dessert. Because he wanted it and because he asked me to. He gave me directions to McMillan’s Bakery out on Forest City Road, the same road we lived on some forty years ago when we were all kids and still a family. I brought back a four inch high Neapolitan, layers of stacked pastry and cream. One bite—that was all he took—one bite. When Carol Lynn didn’t want any, I finished it.

I wasn’t about to go for oysters. I wasn’t going to waste the money, and I felt like I’d already given enough. He wasn’t eating anything anyway. Pancreatic cancer was too busy eating him up. He was all bones and stretched-tight skin—and appetite.

When they looked at him, my sisters’ faces hurt. One of us was always easing him forward, rearranging his pillow, straightening his bed. It made his hospital gown gape and I could see how the lumps of his vertebrae made a ridge down his spine like a holocaust victim or a skeleton.

And here he was saying he wanted fried oysters. He was saying, go—no joke. He’d share. We wouldn’t be sorry. He grinned his power grin, the grin that nearly always got him what he wanted, and he wanted oysters. The motions of his hands, his words, they were lit with desire.

His last real meal, before they started with liquids, before he asked for the oysters, was on a covered pink plastic tray delivered by a small Hispanic woman. She smiled around at each of us and made a clicking sound in her cheek to my brother, but she didn’t speak. When Carol Lynn lifted the cover, Davey didn’t even sigh, he just looked at the tray, brows dipping, lips crimping, resigned. When he lifted his sunken eyes to us, he gave us a see-for-yourselves look. A single scoop of mashed potatoes painted with caramel-colored gravy sat next to a spoonful of peas and carrots, a circle of pressed turkey, half dark meat and half white, lay like a moist yin-yang symbol atop a daub of dressing. A tiny plastic cup of cranberry sauce was placed to the side.

I didn’t think it looked terrible. I thought it looked good enough. I get hungry when I’m bored or stressed or unhappy or when I’m waiting in the hospital.

I got him to take a tiny bite of the potatoes. He made an unhappy face like a baby, like he was going to spit it out. Ummm, Carol Lynn and Marianne encouraged him. Three bites—I couldn’t get him to take more. He wouldn’t taste the turkey.

 

That’s all over. Everything he wanted, everything he could never get enough of—it’s over. Everything except the final act: Marianne, Carol Lynn and I emptying the cardboard box of his ashes at the ocean. My brother’s last wish—no, that’s not true: his last wish was to waste money on an order of fried oysters, but before that—when our mother died and we had arrangements to make—he said he wanted his ashes spread at the beach. We knew what he wanted when he was dead, even if he didn’t say it when he was dying.

He loved the ocean. Loved to surf. It was something he was good at, something I never got the hang of. He loved to fish, surf, and float on the waves rocking in the hot sun. The three of us had agreed we would sprinkle him over the water on his favorite stretch of beach at New Smyrna. It’s where he spent more time then at school or work.

 

In New Jersey, where I live, I’ve been downsized. I’m not working—my wife is, but I’m not, two months now, and it’s been a challenge. My oldest daughter is a senior in college; it’s a big bill. We don’t have extra money to fly me down just on a whim to take care of his ashes. So I’m waiting for the right time, only I’m not sure when that will be.

My wife says I shouldn’t feel guilty. He couldn’t care less, she says. I know she’s trying to make me feel better, even though it sounds unfeeling. But I get this nagging tension in my neck and right shoulder. I get it more often lately. Sometimes I do I think it’s coming from him, the pressure. Which isn’t spooky, just kind of sad. When I get those feelings, I end up eating a lot. More than usual, and that’s more than I need. My wife points this out. One thing that’s funny is I love fried oysters now. I never used to. Even when they have wads of breading on them, or they are frozen, even then I love them.

 

Over the years the two of us had grown further and further apart. It was more than just the distance. Oh, every so often we talked. I would call, or he would, but we both had reservations. Like everybody, we were going our own separate ways. Though we never let go, it got harder to hold on.

For years, when we were little, we shared the same bed; we shared the same room until I was in high school and both girls finally moved out of the house. We were close.  As boys we were inseparable. As a family we moved a lot and us kids found it difficult to make friends, but we had each other. He worshiped me for years because I was his big brother. To him it was a big deal. For me, I took for granted that I’d always be his hero. We had fine times—so many times when it was just him and me, so many times only the two of us knew about. I wasn’t always fair to him or nice—I was his big brother—but I looked out for him. If anybody was going to pick on him, it was going to be me. He appreciated that. I showed him the ropes—the ropes I knew.

Our father died the year my brother turned fifteen. We all agree the timing was bad. My brother growing up without a strong male role model (which our father wasn’t anyway) at that volatile stage of his life. I was away at college, doing alright. He dropped out of high school. He was surfing, smoking pot, getting an education in drugs and salesmanship. He talked about the parties, a pretty girl gripping his arm. He never had to look for girls. They’d find him. I think it had to do with the grin, but none of them ever took.

Our mother always said the right girl would make all the difference. The right girl—that’s all he needed. My sisters said that too. But our mother really believed it. She never lost hope, even when one girl after another never made a difference for long.

Pancreatic cancer is hopeless, that makes a difference. It makes everything different.

My brother had been a drinker since he was a teen—he took after our father that way. When he got so he couldn’t or wouldn’t hold a job, that’s where Carol Lynn came in. Because she and my brother-in-law could afford it, and because she believed she owed it to our mother to watch out for him, and because she is basically a better person than Marianne or I, she paid his rent, made sure he had food, invited him over every holiday, and created odd jobs for him. Every time he had money, he’d drink it, smoke it, swallow it—swearing the whole time he’d quit, he was clean. But there was always something. Periodically, he had emergencies. Hospital emergency rooms were like a trip to the spa for him. The ticket to painkillers, sleeping pills, antidepressants, and an attendant staff.

Usually that was when he called, when he was settled into his hospital room, everything taken care of, time on his hands. He was good at hospitals, had the routine down pat to get the most out of his stay. He rated different hospitals in the greater Orlando area like he was rating hotels. Instinctively he knew which nurses he could con and which ones were hard-asses. He always made friends with the orderlies, the young guys that pushed the gurneys from one test to another, from one X-ray to the next ultrasound. He joked with them, charmed them, as they pushed him from station to station. They looked forward to seeing him. Same with the cleaning ladies. He liked it, that he could get people to like him. When I would visit those times I thought he was really sick, I would come away angry—angry that he used the call button attached to his bed like a room service bell. Angry that he was getting sick more and more often. Angry he wasn’t doing anything about it.

After three to five days, they would release him, having done what they could do, advising him to give up any association with non-prescription painkillers, recreational drugs, and to quit the vodka, the lousy diet, the two-pack-a-day habit. That he got from our mother—the two packs a day. It was the worst part of any hospital stay. No Smoking. Not in his room, not in the building or out. He suffered, but made up for it with pain meds. The first thing he did riding home to his apartment after he was released—he’d light up. He had things worked out so they worked for him.

When we were both young men and thought the world was full of options, I’d have him up to Jersey when things went bad for him in Florida. He’d live with Phyllis and me—a fresh start—that’s what I thought. Another chance. The longest it ever lasted was two and a half months. He’d get tired of it, whatever I’d fixed up for him, me looking over his shoulder, and he’d be ready to go back to Florida.

The last few years, when he’d visit, which wasn’t often, I would set the ground rules. No drinking, no drugs—not in my house—not around the daughters. He’d agreed; I was buying the tickets.

The first couple days were always good. He’d be clear as a bell, sharp, funny—telling stories that made your sides hurt and the room brighten. He was a born storyteller, a gifted exaggerator. Then a few days in, it wouldn’t be enough. Either it was good, but he wanted to make it just a little bit better—or he needed to pick things up if he had started to sink. At some point I’d look at him and his eyes would be dull, flat, his speech slower, more precise, his stories meaner. He had to take his prescriptions, he’d tell me, his eyebrows high and innocent. He was always on medication. It was how he had to boost them, reaching for that something extra every time that drove me crazy.

The last time I bought tickets for him to come up, we built a fancy set of shelves for my youngest daughter’s closet. It was a project we worked on in the basement together. We really got into it. I could see he’d been a good carpenter once—he knew what he was doing. We notched and glued, sanded and painted. It looked great. Phyllis and my daughters made a big deal about what we’d accomplished. We both felt good about it, what we’d done together. How close we’d felt, happy and proud.

It put me over the top, sealed it, two days later when he came to breakfast and he was off in space somewhere. Not from alcohol—that’s something I’d smell, even if it was just one drink, even if it had been a while. It was a talent I had acquired growing up. I didn’t care if they were prescription drugs or non-prescription. I didn’t ask. I’d warned him that this was it. If he couldn’t make it a week, a lousy week, it was the last time.

The next time I saw him, he was dying in Florida. Two years after we had finished the shelves.

 

When I got there, just looking at him made me mad. He didn’t even fill-in the outline of himself. I was trying not to be, but I was really angry. I’d learned these breathing exercises—to control my stress. Phyllis got me to do them after I was downsized. I would do this slow, steady breathing, the whole time letting go of my stress, my anger. I had to do that when I first saw him.

He was still pushing the nurse button, trying to joke with the orderlies, though he could barely talk over a whisper. I had a hard time hearing him and I was listening.

The breathing exercises were a big help. But when he wanted the oysters, the freaking oysters, breathing went out the window. There was no way he could eat them. He had eaten next to nothing for days, even his liquids. He had never finished the Neapolitan. His body wasn’t digesting anything. It was just a matter of time. I was so mad it made my eyes sting.

Before I could say anything, Marianne said she’d get them. She said she’d go get the oysters for him. Did he want anything else? Her smile was so sweet; she looked excited to do it. My brother and Marianne were nine years apart. They never had been close. Never shared a room, or played the same stupid games over and over and over again.

“You’re going for oysters?” I asked her. I must have asked loud, a nurse stopped to look in, then went on.

“You want to buy him oysters?” I was trying to breathe, but it wasn’t working. “His pancreas is shot. He couldn’t eat if his life depended on it.” I was panting. “He’s dying and you want to buy him oysters?”

My sister didn’t bother to look at me. She was the oldest. She didn’t have to listen to me. She just kept smiling at our little brother, who lay propped up in his hospital bed, a skeleton with skin stretched over it, his hands at rest now. He looked at me, then looked at Marianne and rolled his eyes like I was some kind of spoil-sport who wouldn’t play along.

Still smiling at my brother, my sister patted my arm. Then went off in my rental car. I sat in the vinyl wing-back chair next to his bed and really focused on my breathing. After a few breaths, I took his hand, but held it almost without touching it. Broad as it was, it was fragile. Davey said he’d just close his eyes while we waited.

 

The room smelled like hospital and deep-fry. My sister and I ate a few oysters each from the wide-mouth Styrofoam container she’d brought back. There were two sizes and she’d bought the large. I probably ate a few more than she did. They were ok. I think my brother may have been remembering them better than they were. Neither of us finished them. My brother’s eyes stayed closed, racing behind his eyelids.

The next morning, the nurse told us he had slipped into a coma. She said slipped like it might have been an accident—a misstep on his part. The doctor had forewarned us. Still, all of us looked at her and waited. She smiled at each of us individually. It’s the final phase. Phases had been explained to us. She held her hands out like she was giving us something, but her hands were empty. It could be a day, a week. But there wasn’t any pain. She said we shouldn’t worry about any pain.

Three days later, Marianne and I had planes to catch. We had both rescheduled our return flights twice already. My oldest daughter’s graduation was in two days. I thought I couldn’t miss that. We each took a turn kissing Davey on the forehead. Until it was the last minute to catch our flights, we waited for him to open his eyes. I wanted him to see us—acknowledge we had been there for him. I wanted to tell him goodbye. When he didn’t open his eyes, my sister and I drove to the airport.

Carol Lynn, the real rock through it all, was with him when he died. It all happened so quickly after we left, she said. He died before my flight touched down in New Jersey.

 

It’s over a year now; soon it would be his birthday. I tell Phyllis, it’s time. Time I went back.

Time for me and my sisters to take him to the beach. To wade out in the waves to our waists—he’d laugh at that. Time to spread the grit and ash of him like silt on the water. Time I let that last fistful of him go.

Michael Horton has been published in Glimmer Train, and was lucky enough to attend the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, where he learned from the remarkable Tony Earley and Alice McDermott. He doesn’t have any other literary credentials, he just writes, then tries to write better. At different times he has been the Osceola County bookmobile librarian, a prep cook, leased a coffee shop, been king of custodians at a university,  a factory worker, IT guy, purchasing agent, and other stuff, but writing is what he does. He and his wife and live off a back road in New Hampshire with their Great Dane, Oscar, and a view of the mountains.