Jeremy closed the choke. The whine of his chainsaw’s motor faded to an echo in the wooded valley. “Well, shit.” He pulled off his work gloves one by one, and tucked them into the rear pocket of his bibs before reaching up to pluck bright orange plugs from his ears. In his palm, they slowly expanded to their original marshmallow shape, and these he pushed way down into his hip pocket. He stood looking at the chainsaw trapped sidelong in the old lady’s black walnut. He had been an arborist for a long time. Knowing how to notch a tree to guide its fall was instinctual. Bar pinch was rare, catching him only when rot in the heartwood veiled a tension in the trunk. Off the driver’s side mirror his well worn Carhartt jacket hung by its hood. He fished in the pockets for his cigarettes, only to withdraw the Camel soft pack and find it empty. He pulled the dented door open with a metallic clang and squeal, crumpled the soft pack, and tossed it on the floor. The interior of the F-150 was rank with stale cigarette smoke, mildew, and bar oil. The smell of another job, another day cutting wood in southern Indiana. He climbed up behind the wheel and sat with his hands clutching the keys. Staring out the windshield, his head still swimming in the fog of last night’s alcohol, he was fighting the urge to cry.
Usually it’s the older brother who looks out for the younger, but Jason was only ever looking out for himself, and failing most of the time even at that. Jeremy was two years younger than Jason, but by twelve he was taller and stronger, and that trend never reversed. As kids, Jeremy could see that his older brother lacked a sense of self preservation. Whether it was climbing too high in a tree, holding a bottle rocket too long in his hand, or mouthing off to too large a classmate, Jason always acted as though his body wasn’t made of a very vulnerable combination of flesh and bone.
Their father always said that Jason thought he was invincible, but over time, Jeremy developed a more nuanced understanding of his brother. It wasn’t that Jason believed that he couldn’t be hurt, but rather, that he wouldn’t be, and there was a difference. Jason believed in fate, even if he never spoke that word, and this meant that nothing could harm him but those things that were supposed to. If he was supposed to break a leg jumping off the detached garage, he would have, but he didn’t. If he was supposed to drown swimming in Lake Michigan during a storm when they visited the dunes, he would have, but he didn’t. If he was supposed to sever his spinal column and suffer severe brain damage after falling from the railroad trestle spanning Lake Lemon as he tried to drunkenly walk across it, he would have. And he did. And Jeremy was there to witness it, terrified, having pleaded with his brother not to walk out onto the beams hanging seventy feet over the shallow water. One minute he was screaming himself hoarse, cursing his brother’s stupidity as Jason walked the steel rail like a tightrope. The next minute Jeremy was sucking wind, bounding down the hillside as briars tore at his face, his eyes fixed on the motionless body floating in the brown lagoon.
Jeremy should have left for college that summer to pursue his wrestling scholarship at the University of Illinois. Standing in a hospital hallway, his father yelled how foolish he would be to throw away such an opportunity. That was back when they had just been given the good news. Jason was going to survive. But he would require round-the-clock care. Jeremy assured his father that he would only delay college for one semester, until they had Jason back home and comfortable. Then it was just one more semester, until they secured Jason’s disability money and a nurse. By the third year, his father stopped mentioning college, and Jeremy was no longer of any interest to Illinois’ wrestling program. Without the scholarship, college was out of the question.
When his dad was diagnosed with stomach cancer, Jeremy was twenty-two, and he tried never to think about how he would have finished his degree by then, how he should have been beginning his adult life, going anywhere he wanted to go, doing whatever he wanted to do. Those thoughts were the gift wrap on a box full of resentment that Jeremy never wanted to open.
Dropping the tailgate, Jeremy instantly remembered that his other saw was in the shed. He left it there after bucking the ash that fell in last week’s storm, and this morning when he loaded up, he was too hungover to think of it. Over the ribbed truck bed, he dragged a red milk crate towards himself, and drew from it two plastic, yellow wedges. With the wedges in one hand and an eight pound maul in the other, he walked back to the tree that had captured his saw. He set to inserting the thin end of a wedge into the tight mouth of the cut he’d made in the walnut. He tapped the wedge with the fat side of the maul until it refused to penetrate any deeper. Doing the same with the second wedge, the mouth of the cut began to slowly part like a clam preparing to spit, until the first wedge popped out under the pressure, and the weight of the tree sat back down.
He picked up the wedge that had been ejected onto the grass, and tried to hammer it back into the recalcitrant tree trunk, only to watch in utter frustration as the second wedge shot out laterally and landed on the lawn.
“Fuck!” He forcefully struck the remaining wedge with the maul. He planted a boot against the black walnut bark, and with his whole body he yanked on the saw’s bright orange handle. It didn’t budge. Howling another obscenity skyward, he pulled and pulled, his bootheel driving into the tree, his upper body twisting and jerking with pathetic impotence. He let go. The saw was stuck, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. And it was beginning to rain.
Sitting at the bar with a cold bottle of Coors, Jeremy was just passing a little time, catching up on the college basketball rankings before heading home. The nurse’s shift ended at seven sharp, and then it would be his turn to bring the straw to his brother’s lips. To roll his body. To change his diaper. Swallowing a mouthful of his beer, someone called his name, and Jeremy immediately recognized the voice.
“Hey, Travis.” He turned on his stool, forcing enthusiasm.
“It’s been a while man, how’ve you been?”
“How’s your brother?” Travis asked, using the same concerned tone that everyone summoned when asking about Jason.
Jeremy never knew what to do with this question. His brother was never going to uncripple, his brain would never undamage. People wanted him to say “fine,” so that’s what he said.
“Good, man. Good.” And then it got awkward, which Jeremy knew it would. It had to. Travis was Taryn’s brother. Jeremy and Travis had presumed that one day they would be brothers-in-law, but that ended almost two years ago when Taryn took a nursing job in Minneapolis.
“So. How’s your sister?” Jeremy didn’t want to ask it. He wanted to leave, but the question was blocking the door like a stone golem.
“Oh, she’s good man. She’s doing really good. She loves it up there. I think she’s nuts. Minnesota winters? No thanks man, I would not want to deal with that!”
Jeremy nodded. He gulped his Coors and wished he would have stopped for a six pack instead.
“Listen man, I don’t want to upset you or anything, but I figure it’s best if you hear it from me.”
“What’s that?” Jeremy’s heart was already falling to the floor.
“Taryn’s engaged. I’m sorry, man. I know how much you loved her.”
Loved. Past tense. Everything about Jeremy was made past tense by somebody else. Three words whispered past the lump in Jeremy’s throat. “Who’s the guy?”
“Some prick doctor.”
“Wow.” Jeremy looked at the boot-scuffed floor. His heart had already been mopped up and dumped out back.
“Shit. Actually, he’s not a prick. He’s a pretty decent guy, really. You’ll never believe this, he wrestled for Minnesota!”
Jeremy nodded the way the condemned nod when a judge announces their sentence. “That’s good for her. That’s real good. Tell her I said congratulations.” Jeremy drained his Coors and set the bottle atop a five-dollar bill. “Take care, Travis.”
Heavy drops pelted Jeremy’s windshield. The worn wiper blades squeaked with every pass. A rainbow smear of water remained undisturbed by the driver’s side wiper, so he leaned to his right to find a dry patch of glass. What should have been a quick job was now going to take all afternoon. Having surrendered to that fact, he didn’t see any harm in taking a detour to buy cigarettes. With two fresh soft packs in his pocket, he cranked his window down an inch. The drumming of the rain grew louder against the metal roof. He lit a cigarette. He wondered if Taryn still smoked. He always thought it was strange that a nurse would smoke, and when he told her that, she laughed and said she felt the same way about the son of a man who died from cancer. Now she was marrying a doctor. Of course she didn’t smoke anymore. She had moved on. She lived in a big city. She probably jogged and did yoga.
Jeremy’s head throbbed. After his run in with Travis at the bar last night, he’d stopped at the liquor store for a case of beer. When the nurse closed the front door behind her at exactly seven, he cracked the lid on the first can. By the time he turned off the T.V. in the living room where Jason slept, Jeremy had finished six beers. Before going to bed himself, he’d drunk six more, and with each new can, he lit a fresh cigarette. For several hours, he moved between the sickly yellow light of the kitchen where he would take the first cold sip of each new beer, and the silver moonlit porch where he would take the first warm drag of each new cigarette, hunched on the concrete step, refusing to look up at the stars. After sending the last bright red cherry arcing into the black night, and with the last beer can crushed flat and tossed in the bin, he had stumbled back into the house.
Turning the key, he silenced the rumbling truck engine and sat listening to the cascading rain, staring at the wall of water between himself and the shed. All morning, he tried to pretend it hadn’t happened, that he never let such darkness overtake him, but as he watched steam rise from the warm hood of the truck, his memory came flooding back. Last night, between the front porch and his bedroom, he stood in the still black surrounding his brother. His heart full of acid, he looked down on Jason’s face, and silently cursed the mouth that hung agape, choking lightly on every breath. Staring at the enfeebled arms long bereft of function, he wanted to snap them over his knee like kindling. Years of vitriol that had remained encased in his body like prehistoric beasts flash-frozen in ice, began to thaw. Forbidden feelings raged in his mind like an overdue prison riot, and as he stood beside his brother’s slowly rising and falling body, Jeremy had imagined Jason carted out of the house one last time, a coroner’s sheet pulled up over his head. He’d imagined a FOR SALE sign shifting in the wind in front of the house, another that read “Now Leaving Indiana” somewhere along the interstate beyond Terre Haute, and a red dawn laid out before him. He’d imagined the saws, and chains, and chaps, and jugs of bar oil and gasoline all cleared forever from the bed of his truck, and in their place, suitcases. He saw the Mississippi River, the Rocky Mountains, the Sonoran Desert, and against all of them he saw himself, a man entirely unencumbered, a man bound only to his own hysterical whims and ambitions, loosed on the world with no tether, no name ringing in his ears to call him home against the desires of his pleading heart. He saw the town of Bedford in flames and himself witnessing it from some impossible rise with a look of complete dispassion, no, with joy! With celebration! With the applause of a madman who watches the lion eat the lion tamer.
In the big dark of that room, with no sound but his half-dead brother’s wheezing, he knew there was no God who would grant his prayer that his brother just fucking die already. In his knowing, he had looked at the extra pillow behind Jason’s head. Staring deep into its stitching, he considered that pillow. It was right there. Right there. So easy.
And then he’d turned and gone to bed. The truck door opened with its clang and squeal. He slammed it shut and ran across the yard to the shed. Rain beat on him, and by the time he pulled back the heavy wooden doors and ducked inside, his clothes were drenched. Sitting on the table that ran against the back wall was his second saw. He grabbed it by the black handle that ran horizontally over its crown. From the darkness of the shed, he looked out into the gray blur of the world. Rain fell in sheets. He thought of his other saw, stuck sideways in the old lady’s tree. The rain would be soaking it. It was going to rust.