Here’s how you skin a fish, he says as he stoops shirtless over the sink with his knife stogged in a trout’s gills. Slit the seam of the stomach, pull out the guts, cut away the scaly skin. He gestures with the knife as he works and wipes the blade on the thigh of his sweatpants.
It’s December and the first snow has fallen but there’s no heat in the RV besides the space heater. I’m sitting on the couch, watching my brother work his knife, his jumble of limbs sweating despite the cold, the balloon of his gut expanding and contracting and expanding and contracting again. The interstate running parallel to the trailer park is humming.
My brother dumps the intestines in a mug and stares down at the shredded remains of the fish. This will go nice with a lemon and some butter, he says, but I know my brother isn’t talking to me as I sit on the couch, nor is he talking to the metal shell of his RV, nor is he trying to make words out of the traffic rattling along the highway. I know my brother is alone even as he pretends to participate in the world of the living, lying awake inside the cold room of his brain with all his quivering cells.
I want to know about your brother, and where he’s living now, and what he’s doing to keep himself busy, Mr. O’Shaughnessy says, eyeing the yellowing leaves of my discounted cabbage. I still remember the Bellarmine sack of ‘01, he says. I remember that fine piece of work like it was yesterday. He was always a good kid, your older brother. He was always a fine young man.
Mr. O’Shaughnessy is a real piece of shit. He’s a math teacher and the assistant football coach at my high school and after every home game he finishes a bottle of bourbon and slaps his wife. Everyone knows it but no one says anything. And so now we’ve run into each other in the Albertson’s produce aisle and Mr. O’Shaughnessy is pretending he’s thoughtful and kind, telling me all about my brother’s finest moment on the gridiron. He was a revelation that night, Mr. O’Shaughnessy says, he was slicing through Bellarmine’s offensive line like a knife through butter. That strip sack turned the tide of the game, brought home the championship for the first time in a decade. I don’t expect I’ll ever forget it.
Neither will I. It was October, as I recall. I sat in the stands with Mom watching my brother’s shoulders and thighs bulldoze the visiting quarterback. There was a flash of glittering spandex and the glare of stadium lights on my brother’s helmet and then Bellarmine’s quarterback was writhing on the ground, clutching a broken collarbone. He was fucked up, that’s for sure. He lost a chance at an NCAA scholarship but nobody noticed because my brother had the ball and he ran it all the way to the 15 and it took three linemen to bring him down. The home crowd erupted with cheers and all the coaches waved their clipboards and the whole secondary slapped my brother’s ass. I watched him walk to the sideline with his head bowed. Mr. O’Shaughnessy touched him on the shoulder and whispered something in his ear and suddenly I thought of the time when I visited my brother after school to watch him practice. Mom dropped me off on the way to one of her three part-time jobs. It was raining and the field was a mess and from the stands I could tell that my brother was not doing a good job. He lunged for the running back and slipped facedown in the mud and there was Mr. O’Shaughnessy, red-faced and screaming about the uselessness of pussies who couldn’t make a tackle. You stay down there, he bellowed at my brother’s prone form, you stay down there and think about what kind of loser you want to be. Later that night I heard my brother crying beneath me on the bottom bunk, sobbing and gasping for air. Even then I knew he was drowning, but I was the only one who could see, because it was Friday night, and my brother had just turned the tide in the championship game, and Mr. O’Shaughnessy was touching his shoulder.
I stare down at my discounted cabbage. $1.00 a pound: what a steal.
You tell me if you hear anything about him, Mr. O’Shaughnessy says as he turns his cart toward the citrus. He was always a fine young man and I’d like to know that he’s doing well. I’d like to know he’s making his way in the world. Mr. O’Shaughnessy walks away and I toss my cabbage back to its discounted heap. I save $1.00 a pound so I can bring Mom some change. Outside in the parking lot I trundle my shopping cart through puddles of newspapers. I imagine my brother walking toward me beneath the flickering street lights, waving and beckoning me home for a feast of full-price cabbages, and even from this imaginary distance I see he’s a fine specimen of a man. I marvel at the movement of his shoulders and thighs.
Once when we were kids we found a baby mole stuck in the storm drain. It was April and the gutters were overflowing with rain and the mole was wedged between the bars over the sewer, a sodden bedraggled body hanging suspended over a roaring tide of waste. My brother brought it inside, wrapped it in a towel, and tried to feed it a glass of milk. I told him that his big stupid hands would break it, that moles weren’t supposed to drink milk, that once you touched an animal its mom would never take it back. Stop touching it, I said, stop touching it now before you break it.
My brother sat on the couch in our living room, holding the mole in its towel. He was alone in the big stupid bulk of his body. Later, when Mom got home from work at the drive-thru, she screamed and said what is that thing, what is that thing, what is that small and eyeless thing dripping all over the carpet?