by Warren Moore
That’s what family is for, right? You take care of each other, you have each other’s back. Sometimes they bail you out; sometimes you bail them out. And you kick each other’s asses when you have to, but nobody else gets to.
So that’s how it’s been for us. Up until now, it was always him covering for me. When we were kids, and I was running around and knocked the music box off the shelf, Tommy told Mom that he had been the one looking at it, and he just dropped it by mistake, which nobody doubted—Tommy’s the nice one, the smart one. Well, it isn’t like I’m not smart, but I’m not smart like Tommy is. That’s what everyone said back in school: “Dougie’s smart, but not like Tommy.” But anyway, I’m the one who can do stuff—Tommy can barely ride a bike, you know? But when our baseball wound up on the roof, I was the one who could go from our back deck to the railing to the roof and throw it down, you know?
But I was the one who wanted—even needed—to get into things. Well, trouble, mainly, but it was almost always because I always wanted to be doing something. I wanted to go a little faster on my bicycle, jump a higher ramp, do the things that no one in the neighborhood would even try, much less do. And I mean, yeah, that didn’t always work out for me, and I made a lot of ER trips for stitches and casts when I was a kid, and when was older, I had to buy that guy a new Suzuki when I laid his Katana down on Turkeyfoot Road. I was drunk that night, but by the time they found me and got me to the hospital, it wasn’t enough to charge me.
Tommy—well, okay, now he’s Tom, just like I’m Doug, but he’s always gonna be Tommy to me—he’s never been like that. You give him some music, some books to read, you’ll be lucky to get him out of that basement. It’s funny—he’s my older brother, and he’s always been bigger than me, but he never did anything with it. He didn’t work out, he didn’t lift, barely even went outdoors. Except sometimes.
Like once, there was a kid who was giving me shit, pushing me around, stuff like that, you know. He was a couple of years younger than Tommy, which made him a couple years older than me, and yeah, I might have been lippy sometimes, but he shouldn’t have been knocking on me, you know?
So one night at dinner, I tell Mom and Dad that this guy Brett has been making it rough for me. And Dad says to Tommy, “You know this kid?” Tommy says he does, and Dad says, “Next time you see him, kick his ass and tell him to leave your brother alone. Not like on the school bus or anything, but just when you’re out. Take care of your family.”
Now like I said, Tommy doesn’t go out, so it’s not super likely to happen, but one day Mom had sent him up the hill to take something to a neighbor, and he’s walking back down the hill, Dad and I are in the driveway, getting ready to change the oil in the truck. And who should show up but Brett, riding his bike past our house, starting to head uphill. I mention it to Dad, and when the kid goes past, Dad raises up, points at Tommy, then at Brett, and then he puts his arms up and slams his left fist into his right palm.
Sure enough, Tommy walks, the kid rides, and when he gets close enough, Tommy throws a right clear across his body and slugs Brett right the hell off the bike. Brett starts yelling, and Tommy pulls him up by his jacket and just slaps him back and forth like in a cartoon, Whapwhapwhapwhap, and he says, “Leave Dougie alone, asshole.” And then he finishes walking the rest of the way down the hill.
Dad’s about shitting himself. “I didn’t really mean for you to do it, Tommy.” And Tommy turns even whiter than usual and says “Great—tell them that when it’s time for me to go to Juvie.” But nobody ever showed up, maybe because nobody really thought he’d do something like that.
That’s another thing about us—I have to admit that I’m kind of a shit magnet. I get into a lot of it on my own, and always have since the first time the cops found me in this house that was under construction. I was fucking eight years old, and this cop in a Smokey Bear hat comes to my folks’ door and tells them that I had been breaking and entering (Breaking? There wasn’t even a door yet, for God’s sake.) and that they can send me to Juvie for that. It didn’t stop me from doing shit, but it did make me more careful about watching for cops. And at the same time, whenever sketchy shit happened, everyone looked at me.
Tommy? Tommy’s the opposite. Everybody thought he was some kind of angel, a Nice Young Man. Don’t get me wrong—when he did stuff, it was purely kid stuff, dumping detergent in fountains, putting a bunch of different real estate signs all in the same yard. You know, stupid teenager things. But it’s like no one ever even thought about it being something he might do. A friend once said a semi-truck of cocaine could show up at the high school addressed to Tommy Livingston, and I’d get busted for it.
He wasn’t an angel—he still isn’t—but he never got into trouble. Not like me. And it’s always been like that. Tommy’s gonna be something special; Tommy’s gonna be a doctor or a lawyer or something. Me? Not so much. He’ll end up at Yale—I’ll end up in jail. Funny, huh? Not so much when the neighbors say it.
Not like I needed help getting in trouble. Like, when I was fifteen, my brother had a car. It wasn’t much of a car, understand. Really, it was a piece of shit, a copper-colored Chevy Vega. Actually, I guess it was more bondo-colored than anything, but it had wheels and an engine and Tommy drove it to work and to college until he made enough money flipping burgers to buy a better car. And I don’t know who would have been crazy enough to buy the Vega, but he had come up with 500 bucks for the new car and someone was supposed to come over one Sunday to look at the old one..
So that Saturday night, a buddy of mine was spending the night, and we were downstairs, and well, we thought it would be cool to take the Vega for a drive. What the fuck—Tommy was getting rid of it anyway. Well, Darrell only had his temps, and I didn’t have shit, but it was one in the morning, and I knew where Tommy’s keys were, so I wound up driving.
I was doing well, seeing as I had never driven a car before, until I was coming down a hill and hit what I guess was a patch of gravel. And I started to skid and we went off an embankment on the other side of the road and the car wound up on its top. I remember seeing Darrell’s legs going out the window.
I guess I got knocked out for a second, because the next thing I remember is being upside down and Darrell saying, “Dougie, the car’s on fire.” But it must not have been too bad, because he put it out with some wet grass, and I managed to get unstrapped and kicked out a window to get out. I hurt like hell—my collarbone was broken, and like I said, I guess I had been knocked out, because Darrell and I knew we had to get out of there, so we decided to walk back home. I mean, we were fifteen—where else were we gonna go? But I got turned around and we walked a couple miles in the wrong direction before we figured it out and started going the right way.
It was about 8:30 or 9 that morning before we got back to the house, because we were moving pretty slowly, and the side trip didn’t help. So that meant Tommy and Dad had plenty of time to get called by the county cops and get told that Tommy’s car was on its top by Cartwright Road. Since we weren’t home and Tommy didn’t have his keys, he and Dad figured out what happened pretty quickly, and so they were just waiting for Darrell and me to show up.
And we did, and I was barely through the door when Dad jumped off the couch and was coming down the stairs to deck me when I yelled, “Wait! My collarbone’s broken.” And it was, which they told us at the ER and when we got back home, I was all harnessed up. When Darrell’s folks came and got him, the parents decided that he and I should give Tommy $250 each for his car—which is more than it was worth, and gave him enough to pay for his new ride outright, so he actually came out pretty well on the deal too.
But he was decent about it. I told him I was sorry about his car, and he just said, “On the way up to the wreck, Dad said he was hoping he wasn’t going to have to ID bodies. I’m just glad you’re mostly okay.” His fucking voice cracked when he said it—I wish he would have just punched me instead, even with the broken collarbone.
But that’s kind of how our family is, you know—we had each other’s backs. Like a couple years later my car burned up. I had a sweet old Merc Montclair—a ’68, light blue. It came with a 390, but I changed it out for the 428, and maybe I fucked up some wiring or something, because one day I look out the window and my car is on fire. So I call the fire department, but that’s a waste of fucking time, because they’re volunteers in Greensburg, and by the time Clem and Buford get to the station and then show up, the car’s totaled even though I was right down the road, and all I’ve got is liability insurance anyway, so up yours, Doug, right?
Fine, I could drive my dad’s old truck until I could get another car, but it pissed me off every day when I’d have to drive by the firehouse and think about how it might as well have not even been there. And then it wasn’t there anymore because what do you know—somebody torched the fucking fire hall. Wasn’t anything they could do about it when they showed up but watch and wait for the department in the next town over to get there too late to do anything. They lost an engine, a pumper, and an ambulance. And of course, a lot of people got a laugh out of it—a bunch of Gomers having their own firehouse go up. They investigated, but nothing came of it; I mean, there was a Sunoco station right up the road, and five gallons of gas is pretty cheap.
I know I got a laugh out of it—Hell, I could laugh about it all day. And one night I was sitting around with Dad and Tommy, and I laughed and said something about them having it coming and how they knew what it was like now to lose their ride. And the two of them just looked at me for a few seconds, and Dad said, “Doug—was it you?” Well, I just laughed, didn’t say yes or no, but we never talked about it again. To anybody, and if they wondered—and I guess they did, because Dad asked, after all—they didn’t tell anyone about what they thought. You take care of each other.
I did do better than Tommy did on a few scores, though. I was more athletic, and I was cooler, and I had better luck with girls than he did. He went all the way through college and into grad school before he had a serious girlfriend—I was getting action when I was thirteen. The girl next door was between my age and Tommy’s, and what do you know.
And there was the time that I ran into one of Tommy’s exes at the bowling alley. I was there with one of my buddies, and she was there with one of hers, and one thing led to another and we got some beers and parked in a cul-de-sac. Somehow, I wound up with Tommy’s ex and things were starting to get interesting when the cops showed up. Turned out I was the only one of the four of us who was underaged, so while the others got open container tickets, I got a trip to the cop shop and Mom and Dad had to come get me, which was embarrassing, and it was even worse when they and Tommy found out who I’d been with. And Tommy was pretty pissed off, because she had been the one who dumped him—he was always the one to get dumped—and so for me to get caught parking with her, well, I guess it kind of stung. But he let it go after a few days, because what are you gonna do? We’re family.
So I’d tell people that Tommy might have book smarts, but I was the one you wanted in a pinch. And Tommy did well enough—he got through college and did a Masters in math. He got a job at Great American Insurance, across the river. He’s an actuary, which he tells me means that he figures out the odds of things happening so the company can basically know about how much they’ll need to pay out in a given period.
“So you’re a bookie, huh, or the guy who sets the line? Only legal.”
“Kind of,” he said, and laughed.
You didn’t have to be a genius to figure out how things were likely to go for me. I mean, I’m kind of a fuck-up, I guess. I’ve been through a bunch of jobs—I interview well—but it never seems to work out. I might skip out on work at the candy factory because somebody got tickets to a Bengals game, or I might get caught sleeping when I was supposed to be taking inventory in the long-term parking at the airport, or. . . well, you get the idea. Like I said, I’m kind of a fuck-up.
And yeah, everybody got tired of my shit from time to time, but Tommy knew this poem by Robert Frost. No, not the ones about miles to go and all that, but the one that says home is where they have to take you in. And so when I was between jobs or sometimes girlfriends (I was smart enough to use a rubber, anyway), I could stay with my folks or later, Tommy.
Like a lot of things, it was okay, most of the time, until it wasn’t. I owed a guy some money—doesn’t matter why, okay?—and I was living at Tommy’s apartment, and the guy sent another guy around for a less-than-friendly visit. Dude slaps me around in Tommy’s living room, and all I can think, besides wishing I had the guy’s money, is how fucking glad I am that Tommy’s gone down to the store for some cherry Cokes. I mean, I’ve been beaten up before. I don’t like it, but it’s happened before, and it’s not like he’s gonna kill me or anything, because where’s the payoff in that?
But just my luck, I hear tires in the driveway, and there’s Tommy in the door with a 12-pack of cherry Coke. He asks what’s going on, and the dude says, “Fuck off, Fatboy,” and knocks him back with a forearm.
That’s a mistake, because Tommy’s a civilian, but he’s a big guy, and he grabs a lamp off the table and clobbers the muscle with it. The muscle goes down, and I’m getting ready to put the boot in when he makes this gurgling noise, and I see a chunk of glass from the lamp stuck in the guy’s throat, and now we’ve got a dead guy on the floor and Tommy holding the busted lamp and saying “Ohshit ohfuck what are we gonna do ohfuck oh—”
“Give me the lamp, Tommy.” It takes him a second, but he hands it to me. Now I’m holding it, and his prints are on it and so are mine, but of course his are gonna be, it’s his fucking apartment, right? And I guess one of the neighbors heard the banging around from where the muscle had been smacking me, because I see blue lights over Tommy’s shoulder, coming into the parking lot.
When Officer Friendly comes to the door, he sees the dead guy, and things get really fucking serious and he pulls his gun, tells us both to back away, and radios for backup.
And I’m thinking. I’m thinking of car wrecks, and him slapping Brett off his bicycle, and how Tommy had given me shit about getting caught with Angie, but that it didn’t matter. Because Tommy had turned out okay, or better, and I—well, I never said I wasn’t a piece of shit, or at least a fuck-up, right? And here we were, with Tommy about to get busted for something I had sort of gotten him into. And everyone would be shocked—it might kill Mom and Dad. I mean, me getting in trouble, everyone gets used to, but Tommy? No one would see that coming.
But even a fuck-up can get it right sometimes, right? So before Tommy says anything, I tell Officer Friendly I did it, that I owed the guy some money and he was roughing me up and I clocked him right as Tommy was coming in. See, he was at the store—see the Cokes there? And I get a look at Tommy, and I see in his eyes that it’s killing him, but he’s still a guy who runs numbers at an insurance office and I’m me, and he’s gonna go back to work because now it’s my turn.
You take care of family.
Warren Moore was born in Nashville, TN, and grew up in the suburbs of Nashville and of Cincinnati. He finished tied for 105th in the 1979 National Spelling Bee. Along the way, he has worked as a journalist, music critic, copywriter, tire and battery salesman, stand-up comic, and voiceover talent, as well as drumming in a number of unsuccessful bands. Moore is now Professor of English at Newberry College. His fiction has appeared in many print and online magazines, as well as anthologies edited by Lawrence Block. His story “Bowery Station, 3:15 A.M.” was named a distinguished story in The Best American Mystery Stories 2016.