My Brother and Me
Where: Detroit Michigan, 48238 Detroit (United States). When: on 07-12-2010.
Written at 07-12-2010 by Mark Chapman
Labels - siblings brother forgiveness
It took place on a rainy Saturday afternoon in our neighborhood on the edge of Detroit, some years before our folks moved northwest out of the city. A cousin of my age and my best friend in those days, Bill, had come over for the day.
Bill and I had become bored after lunch because the rain was keeping us inside. Fed up with playing imaginary games in the small, hot furnace room in the basement -- where we often played pretending to be knights or cowboys -- we went upstairs to David to ask him to persuade our mother to let Bill and me go outside in the rain. David thought we had a superb idea and agreed to join us if he could convince Mom to let us all out to get wet.
It was good David wanted to go along, because Mom was sure not to allow only Bill and me to do something so unusual. We needed the backing of an older brother to lend credibility to our cause. While David went to the kitchen to present our petition to Mom, Bill and I went back down to the basement and listened to him make his presentation from around a corner at the bottom of the basement steps.
It took David and us a half hour to tip the scales in our favor. Mom, of course, was worried that we would catch "our death of cold" if she let us out to play in the heavy rain; it was only the first week of May. David begged her. "Come on, Ma. It'd be so much fun. Come on. Why not?" David pleaded again and again, ignoring her reasonable objections. Then Bill and I, having become rather anxious as we listened in secret, noisily stomped up the tiled steps to the kitchen to add our voices to his, at the moment when it seemed he was about to fail.
Mom finally relented. Though she restricted us to half an hour outside, David and I knew that we had been given license to spend the rest of the day in the rain if we chose. As soon as we were outside, we knew Mom would put us out of her mind for a while and forget when she had told us to return. A good long while would pass before she would miss our begging voices, remember that we had gone out into the rain, and look out the windows to find us or call for us from the back door in the basement.
When we first went out, the rain was falling so thickly that it looked foggy outside. After the three of us had stood no more than 10 seconds in the downpour, our clothes were soaked through. We were very happy. We spent a long time diverting the water that was rushing out of the downspouts on the neighbors' house.
We were trying to create a river down their driveway. After a while, we decided that it would be much more challenging and wicked to try to plug one of the spouts and force the rain over the rim of the gutters. We tried everything we could find: mud, sand, stones, rags from the garage, and then our shirts, which we had to ring out when we took them off. We failed and gave up.
For a minute we stood together in the rain and began to shiver. The rain was falling a little less hard but just as steadily. It was astonishing how prolonged and intense this rainstorm was. We were no longer happy. Bill wanted to go inside; he stood beside the neighbor's brick house, his arms wrapped around his middle, shirtless, his head bowed and his wet hair stuck to his forehead. Because I could think of nothing else to do, malicious or not, I had just about decided to head inside with Bill. But David had an idea. He wanted to play baseball in a large, circular patch of bare dirt in our backyard. That, of course, sounded like an excellent idea. We three promptly set off to inspect the area.
Our father had dug up the lawn and left the bare patch a few weeks before; he was building something on the spot, perhaps a little shed. I can't remember exactly. Because he had dug down a few inches, and because the rain had been falling so heavily, the mud patch had become a pool of muddy water neatly surrounded by tall spring grass. Under the water, the dirt and clay had turned into a squishy mud. We took our rain-soaked shoes off and stepped carefully into the cold, muddy pool. It was the color of coffee with cream. I almost lost my balance as I gingerly placed my foot on the slippery bottom of the muddy pool. Though we could not see our feet as we stood in the brown water, we could feel the mud pushing between our toes and around the sides of our feet. We quickly agreed: the pool was perfect for pretending to slide into home plate.
After we each practiced sliding through the pool a few times, David came up with an idea for a simple game. We would play "Throwing Home," just the kind of game at which, as Bill and I later realized, David could defeat us whenever he pleased. Rotating positions every couple plays, one of us would be an outfielder, one a catcher, one a base-runner. The object of this game was simple: the baserunner would try to run home starting from a small tree over at the edge of our yard and make it safely to home plate, which was a stick David had stood upright in the middle of the pool of mud. Standing in the pool of mud, the catcher was to throw a baseball, which we got out of the garage, over the outfielder's head toward the house, which was, naturally, the centerfield fence. As soon as the outfielder picked up the ball, the base-runner was allowed to leave third base, that small evergreen tree off to the left side of the pool. The base-runner had only one goal: beat the throw with a slide into the mud. The catcher would try to tag him out before he grabbed the stick.
Getting home safely was not as easy as we had, at first, thought it would be -- at least for Bill and me. David's worn, warped, scuffed baseball quickly became much heavier and very slippery. On every play, it either fell on the wet grass or into the pool. The mitt the catcher was allowed to use (there was no need for the outfielder to have one, and, in any case, David would not permit us to use his good mitt in the rain) also became heavy, soggy, and slimy, not only because ofthe rain, but because applying the tag to the runner usually required the catcher to douse it in the pool of muddy water.
Quickly, it became clear to Bill and me that we were not going to have much success tagging David out -- it was usually the case with every athletic competition we held against each other that he would win easily. He was taller, heavier, faster, and smarter than Bill or I. He could catch and throw better, too. More than these, he could slide from the edge of the grass through the mud right to the stick in one long, agile motion. David took great pleasure in beating Bill's throws and mine to the plate, and his antics -- hooting and jeering and laughing and cheering his own performance -- began to irritate me. Undoubtedly, I would have taken the same pleasure, too, if I had had the same success. David soon took to sliding with a flourish of his arms and a high kick of his left leg. The footing, of course, was poor. Bill and I slipped and fell in the cold, muddy water many times as we gamely tried to get him out. We finally wised up and stopped trying to tag him on any play that it was obvious that he had easily beaten the throw. But whether we tried or not, we soon figured out, did not matter to David. He started to taunt us for giving up, for being cry-babies, even though neither of us was crying or whining, yet. In a short time, Bill and I were having trouble even getting the ball to home plate. Long after David had slid past Bill or me and grabbed the stick, our throws usually dropped short of the muddy pool, much too late to bother trying to catch. But despite our adopted policy of giving up on most of David's turns as base-runner, David began sliding to the stick with ever greater flourishes -- and leaping out of the mud with ever louder boasts.
The concept behind the game was, of course, to give us all the chance to look like Al Kaline sliding into home at Tiger Stadium. Kaline was a hero for most kids in Detroit and its wide ring of suburbs back in the '60s. I cannot say how many times I saw him slide into home -- perhaps once on television, perhaps never. It was the way we believed Kaline would slide that we were imitating. No one on our baseball teams could slide on the dusty, hard gravel of the Little League infields with any of the smoothness and elegance of a big-leaguer. The usual painful slide of a Little Leaguer often lasted no more than a foot or two; it looked stubby and clumsy and childish -- and we knew it. In that pool of mud, at last, we believed we looked like we were sliding with the grace and power of the pros. As I hit the pool, the muddy rain water jumped into the air and toppled down onto my chest and face. I felt my rear slipping perfectly over the mud bottom of the pool to the stick. I held my right leg straight out through the whole of every long slide. I could hear the cheering of the crowd in my head, just as I imagine Bill and David could in theirs.
Despite all the cheering I heard and the beauty with which I thought I had slid, during one period of the game David tagged me out five times in a row. What a blow to my dignity and confidence! Bill suffered a worse ignominy: David or I tagged him seven times in a row. We were all carefully counting to ourselves so that we could boast if we did well, though it was only David who announced his achievements. On one play, David stopped me from reaching the plate by standing in front of the stick, in an aggressive crouch, as he waited for the ball to come in from Bill. I slid right into his legs with plenty of time to make it safely home, but he did not budge. His feet were set deep in the mud below. As I scrambled through the muck to get around his legs, he finally scooped the soaked baseball from the water and slammed the mitt down onto my head an instant before I touched the stick. Another humiliation. I protested vehemently that I had beaten the tag. He dismissed me. Then I protested that the tag was illegal. Over by the house, Bill put his arms around his chest, waiting for the dispute to subside. I felt tears coming to my eyes and kicked some muddy water at David. David laughed. Then, with a sudden scowl, he threw the water-logged mitt straight at my face.
We changed the order of the rotation several times, but neither Bill nor I could tag David out any longer. The ball simply had become too heavy for either of us to get it home in time. Even though his legs and arms, just like Bill's and mine, flailed about in a silly way as he ran across the slippery grass toward the pool, David was just too fast and too big and too smart. Perhaps a little bored with how easy it was to score, David started trying to humiliate us on every play. Several times, even when the I did not yet have the ball in hand, David slammed into me and knocked me down into the mud before he took hold of the stick -- just for kicks, I suppose. As we neared the end of our patience, he took to jamming the stick proudly back into the mud and then exalting with his hands raised, dancing in the water as the rain washed away the muddy water from his back.
We were about done. Bill kept saying he was going in. I was protesting David's antics continuously. But at about the time Bill and I had finally decided to go in for sure, we finally almost got David out. The play was the one that led to the incident for which David expected an apology from me twenty years later. On this play, David slipped and fell beside the evergreen just as Bill picked up the soaked baseball by the house. I yelled at him to make a good throw and, for once in a long while, he did. I caught the ball while David was still truggling to pick up speed on the grass. Despite having the ball and being ready to put on a tag while David was still coming home, I knew I was in trouble. As I turned to face David, stepped in front of home plate, and set my feet apart for the tag, I saw that he had gained a lot of speed quickly and was running harder than ever. He threw out his arms, jabbed his left leg out, curled his right leg under him, and drove his body into the pool with such force that mud and water were thrown all over me, even in my eyes. A moment later, blinded, I felt David's body slide between my legs. I felt him grab my ankle and push up. I tried to keep my balance but fell into the mud on my right shoulder. Then I felt David slam his fist down on the mitt. A blast of pain shot through my hand. The baseball squirted out of the mitt and bobbed away on the waves in the pool. After I stumbled and slipped to my feet in all haste and wiped the mud from my eyes, I found my older brother signaling that he had been safe, crossing and re-crossing his arms. He was laughing raucously.
"No way. No way," I shouted at him above the sound of his laughing and the rain spattering in the pool. "You can't do that -- you're out -- you're out." David looked at me, then laughed some more while I kept on protesting. Shivering, Bill started wandering toward us from the outfield grass. When I slammed the heavy mitt down into the muddy water with a sluggish splash, David took a step toward me and punched both hands, palms out, into my bare chest. In an instant, I landed softly on my rear in the mud. While I sat there in the cold murky water, David lectured me on the rules of baseball. He smugly averred that the play he had made was entirely legal. It was the fielder's responsibility to hang on to the ball; a runner could try whatever he wanted to make the fielder drop it, "even kick him in the balls," he said. Then, pointing imperiously toward the house, he told me to get off my butt and go into the outfield. I obeyed with a whispered curse.
There were some bricks lying in the grass farther back on the lawn that day, bricks my father was intending to use for his project, whatever it was. As I passed Bill on the way toward then house, I told him we'd take a couple more rotations and then head inside. I had decided that on my next turn as catcher I would use one of those bricks to get revenge, not just for this one incident, as reprehensible as it then seemed to me, but for every time my older brother had lorded it over me, had slapped me imperiously, had ordered me around, had proved he was so much smarter and stronger than I, had beaten me up, had undeservedly gotten me in trouble with our parents -- for every offense, real, exaggerated, or imagined. I should probably admit that I could probably not now, many years into adulthood, any longer recall more than two or three such offenses -- and none of them very consequential.
The next time I was up as catcher and David was base-runner, David walked away from me toward the little evergreen that was third base and Bill, hunched over, walked disconsolately toward the house. Neither of them was watching me. Quickly, I grabbed one of the bricks in the grass near the back of the pool and put it in the water half way from the edge of the pool to the stick. It was a thoughtless deed: I had not bothered to weigh its consequences. I simply saw the bricks, imagined that one of them would effectively stop David and shake him up a bit, hastily grabbed it as he was facing away from me, and planted solidly it in the mud. I even stepped on it to make sure that it was set securely enough that it would not move much when David hit it as he slid.
I tossed the ball toward the house. Bill loped in for it and it dropped in a puddle on the grass in front of him. Bill's lazy disconsolate home dropped into a puddle on the grass several feet in front of the pool; the ball had become almost impossible for us to handle. David was coming hard again, perhaps peeved with my endless protests. I jumped out of his way as he slid into the mud. I chased the ball casually, because I thought I would have plenty of time to tag David out after he hit the brick. A moment later, as I stooped to pick up the ball off the grass, David's foot struck. I was watching, with satisfaction. It was a frightening sight. He screeched in pain, crumpled, and spun around on his back. He was too far from the stick to reach it. I held the baseball firmly in the mitt and waded into the pool to tag him out -- at last. Revenge was mine; it did feel sweet, I clearly remember feeling at the moment. But when I came to stand next to him, I saw the expression on his upturned face. His mouth was wide open but no sound was coming out; the rain was falling down his black throat. His face was twisted in pain, his eyes shut tight. Suddenly, he began gasping for air. Now he clenched his teeth and lie in the muddy water doubled up, clutching his left foot. As he lay there on his back, with his bloody foot in his hands, I watched him in confusion and waited for him to try to grab the stick; I was not yet certain that he was hurt. The coffee-colored water flowed on and off David's chest as it rose and fell. Little trickles of blood flowed around his hands and drops of blood floated on top of the water. I turned and ran; tagging him out seemed, at that moment, unseemly. Getting the feeling that something had gone wrong, Bill hustled to follow me to the back door, which led into the basement. As we opened the door hurriedly we could hear, just above the heavy rain, the sound of David cursing. Then we heard him scream at us, "I'll get you little bastards."
Bill was terrified. "What did you do?" he wailed in a loud whisper. As I slammed the door behind us, I turned to him and said with all the serenity I could muster, "I put a brick in the water and he slid into it." Bill knitted his brow in irritation. "Why'd you do THAT?" I shrugged and sat down on the long wooden bench kept beside the door. We made all haste to get out of our pants and underwear. My mother came down to the basement. She looked at us disgustedly as the water rolled off our bodies onto the bench and tile floor. First, she asked us where we had left our shirts. Then she asked us where David was. We said our shirts were still outside -- with David. She told us to go back out and get them before we undressed. Bill and I exchanged a glance. Predictably, there was no chance we were going to risk going back out to the muddy pool, where David was still lying in the water holding his foot. I told Mom that because we were cold we would get the shirts after the rain had subsided. From the basement laundry room, she brought out dry clothes for us and again wondered aloud about David.
When she had gone upstairs, Bill demanded that when David came in I tell him that he had had nothing to do with putting that brick in the mud. It was my judgment that we had better both avoid David for the rest of the day than hazard an attempted explanation of who was and was not responsible for the deed. Bill and I quickly dressed in the dry clothes Mom had brought out for us and hid in the hot furnace room. We kept the lights out and chanced only whispers. After some long minutes of anxious waiting, we heard David open the back door slowly and come inside. He groaned as he slumped onto the bench. He sounded so much older than I, as though his injury had aged him. My mother came back down to the basement and gasped when she saw David's foot, from which blood was dripping onto the tiles. Bill and I, holding our breath as well as we could, peered at the scene through a crack in the frame of the furnace room door. "How did that happen?" Mom asked. Bill and I braced for his story, but David only clicked his tongue and moaned. Then the hot water heater clicked on behind us. Bill jumped in fright and bumped me into the door. David didn't seem to hear us. His head was resting against the wall as he sat on the bench and Mom examined the wound. She went into the laundry room again and brought out a couple rags. She wrapped one around David's foot and wiped the blood from the floor with another. They quietly left the basement together to clean and bandage the wound upstairs. David had not asked Mom where Bill and I were, but he would surely do so upstairs; we could not be certain that Mom did not know. We considered changing hiding places. We considered going back out in the rain to hide in the garage. What was David going to do with us? We spent an indecisive half-hour in the dark furnace room without hearing David come back to the basement. We heard nothing but the sound of hot water in the pipes. Finally, we summoned enough courage to venture out and look around. Puddles of cloudy rain-water were drying near the back door. A drop or two of blood that my mother had missed were dull and dry. Bill and I were not about to risk going upstairs to find out how badly David's foot had been cut -- even though this was what we most wanted to do. I thought that Mom could protect us from him, but then she would find out what happened. It was a fearful dilemma.
Eventually we saw David that day. He threatened me several times, mysteriously knowing that Bill had nothing to do with the brick, with dire revenge. "I'll get you for this," he hissed at me once, not even looking at Bill, as he limped toward me in the kitchen. He was wearing a thick bandage under a thick sock. All day I feared for my life, pleaded with David for clemency, and lamented my recklessness. But David never exacted his revenge -- not that Saturday or ever. For some reason he never revealed, he did not have the heart to carry out his threats. Perhaps he accepted that after all he had done to me over the years -- and would do in the years to come -- he had deserved what I had done. But whether or not he believed he had deserved my reprisal, I learned 20 years later that he has always believed, that day and ever after, despite the number of times we had laughed about my putting that brick in the mud, that he deserved an apology from me.
* * *
BUT AN APOLOGY? Now? After all this time? Two decades? As I have said, I was puzzled and irked. As I looked down at the carpet last week at Mom's and hoped David would either withdraw his request or finally tell me it was a masterfull joke, the 20 years between my revenge and that moment dissolved in my soul like a thin mist scattered by a breeze. For a few minutes, the years seemed never to have passed. I felt like a ten year old again -- specifically, a ten year old who had just been asked to apologize. Apologies are not easy, I now distinctly remember, for a ten year old, and they had always been a particularly conspicuous weakness of mine. I knew last week that I should apologize. I even wanted to make the apology, to be forgiven at last for having played that cruel, thoughtless prank. It had been, I honestly have no doubt, a stupid, wicked act, one for which I have felt, at times, painfully guilty. But something inside checked the words of apology. I could not release them, as though a valve in my soul had stuck fast. For that cruel deed, I now realize, quite obviously, I do not feel enough remorse or shame or guilt to force that valve open. It is obvious, too, that I still maintain that David deserved just about all that he had received, however cruel the deed might be judged -- though I have harbored this moral verdict for two decades only in secret.
"Don't you think you owe me an apology?" David asked me, breaking the silence. "After all these years?" I said, a little too quickly, too heatedly. His voice became tense. "Why not? I still feel you owe it to me." "After all these years?" David shrugged. "It's always bothered me that you've never said you're sorry." "Why?" "Why? Because you cut me pretty badly with that brick." "Why didn't you tell me this sooner?" I said, no longer even trying to mask my impatience. "I don't know -- what does it matter? I'd still like you to apologize." When I did not reply quickly enough, David added, in a slightly patronizing tone, "Don't you feel sorry?" He sounded as though he were imitating one of our arents. "Well, yeah, I suppose. But it's been a long time." I was bristling at his every word, but still my words of apology kept rising. Each time, they were checked and fell back. "So why don't you?"
"It just seems a little unfair to expect an apology after all these years." David sighed manfully. "Well I'm not going to push it. It's not a big deal, but I do think you should apologize, Chuck." I sounded exactly as I would have as a ten year old: "It just seems pretty strange that you'd want an apology now, twenty years later. And if it's not a big deal, why are you bringing it up?" David snapped back, "If it's not a big deal to you, why don't you apologize?" The apology rose, pressed hard against my chest, and fell. Grudgingly, I said, "Okay: if it's so important to you -- I'm sorry." Of course, my childish tone was not even slightly apologetic. David piously and curtly accepted the apology and walked away. I knew he thought I had not meant a word of it. I sneered at his back like I had hundreds of times in our childhood.
A week later, it remains surprising and disturbing to me that that apology had been so difficult for me to give. I have been thinking about what happened between us, it must be obvious, quite a lot. Even though two decades have passed since David has pushed me around, given me orders, or shown me up, clearly, I have never forgotten that David was, in my opinion, which is now and forever unverifiable, unjust and cruel to me when we were children. How durable and fervent that considered opinion has been. Clearly, too, I have been unable to pry loose and put aside the resentment I have always felt for the ways he treated me when we were boys -- when his size and maturity made such an important and unmerited difference between us. As I was trying to apologize last week, I remember sensing my soul shouting inside me: "He deserved just what you did to him." David's request for an apology seemed in the light of that position no more than sanctimonious moralizing, pretentious posturing, and it so exasperated and infuriated me that I know that if, just last week, at the age of 32, I had seen him once again haughtily walking toward that evergreen tree in our back yard through the thick rain, I would have surely grabbed one of the bricks lying nearby in the grass and would have stepped on it hard enough to keep it from moving when David slid into it. I might even have done it today.
For some reason I cannot sift out, my passionate conviction that I had been just in planting that brick in the mud is still as intangible as David's belief hat he had been wronged. Indeed, I still feel the urge -- even now, as I write these disquieting words -- to reopen the case, to give David a stern lecture on justice and integrity. I cannot shake the conviction, I actually have little desire to shake the conviction, that because he had warranted my taking revenge on him, I have never been under any obligation, not 20 years ago or at any time since, to apologize for the vengeance I had rightfully taken. David was right about my apology last week: it was perfunctory. I apologized just to be a sport, to try to be adult about this matter. It seems juvenile to harbor such old and petty resentments. I tried, weakly, to save face. But as we stood facing each other last week, both of us for a moment looking down at the carpet and absently rubbing it with the toes of our shoes, I have to admit to myself that I almost blurted out that I still believe that he deserved my vengeance. I almost blurted out that I had no intention of apologizing because I had not done anything wrong with that brick twenty years ago. I almost blurted out, too, that I would avenge myself again if David ever treated me as he had when we were children (something I had promised him, in mere jest, many times before). All this, I realized at the instant that I felt these impulses, would have been extremely embarrassing, just as it probably would have been irritating and amusing to David. Expressing such ideas, for adults, even though we might believe them, is simply not worth it.
I should return to the story of the brick for a moment. A day after I planted it in the pool and David slid into it, my mother learned how he had cut his foot. She came to me to ask me why I had done it. I said to her, "He deserved it, Mom. He's always getting me. Now I finally get him and he doesn't like it." It's strange and startling to have discovered that I think exactly as I did twenty years ago. My mother sternly chastised me -- in her mysteriously kind way -- for my misdeed and decided on my punishment: to sweep and mop our tiled basement floor. Putting on her gravest face and using her most solemn voice, she recommended that I take a "good long look" at the gash on David's foot -- it turned out to be a serious cut, for which David needed a few stitches and a tetanus shot. I was not about to ask David to let me have a peek at it for fear that he would give me a good whack at the moment I was close to him and my head was lowered. My mother warned me with a gentle shake of her index finger in front of my nose that I had better not ever take revenge on anyone in such a spiteful way again. As I looked away from her glaring yet kindly eyes, I remember, I wanted to reassure her that such wicked deeds were conserved only for David.
Her exhortation from 20 years ago, it is revealing and rather awkward to discover, had been lost on me. When I saw what happened as a result of David's sliding into that brick, I had not minded having been so cruel. Though verrified of the possible consequences of the deed, I had felt justified and satisfied with my exaction of revenge. Not even the severity of the cut had ever caused me to question the justice of what I had done. A week ago, I showed myself, for perhaps the first time, that, however much my thoughts mortify and puzzle me, I still feel that my deed was fully warranted. Though it is shameful to admit it, neither my mother nor David has convinced me that I was wrong and should have repented and apologized long ago.