Poor Relations, new short fiction by @jackaurquhart

A pair of wine glasses with unidentified red w...

©2013 by Jack A. Urquhart

1984 words

Less than twenty-four hours in and Mark can sense it, how the connection—his and Luke’s—is off.

He notes well the signals of his brother’s waning attention: the never far from reach smartphone, the state-of-the-art computer beeping in the study, Luke’s line of sight drifting down the hall.

There are many, these reminders of important business—e-mails to answer, calls to return.

Mark feels the distance acutely—suspects that his visit has been a bad idea; his notice, too short; his arrival in the middle of the workweek, ill-conceived.  How else to account for it—that he feels closer to the labrador snoozing at his feet, closer to ‘Edgar,’ (no unfashionable ‘Rovers’ in this household!) than to Luke?

When his brother speaks to him, it is from nowhere close at hand.

“It sounds terrible,” Luke offers, his voice near a whisper.  “I liked Tom.  I’m sorry he lost his way.”

This unexpected brotherly detachment is difficult to understand, even harder to bear.  Mark feels alone in his grief, solitary in his sibling’s gleaming gourmet kitchen.  He’d wanted only to commiserate with an intimate, to release some of the anguish building in the aftermath of his lover’s death.

‘Edgar,’ nuzzling his ankle, makes a poor substitute.

What about human empathy?

Mark is just before asking, searching for courage in a second glass of his brother’s fancy Pinot.  Instead, he hesitates, says, “Jesus, Luke.  You can’t know how much I’ve missed you, little brother.  Since Tom’s death I’ve felt—adrift.”

It is the wine talking, of course—the drink driving him to drop hints, to leap headlong into ‘feelings,’ into the past.

And still, he can’t resist.

“ ‘Member how Ma called us guys her four little apostles?” Mark plunges ahead.  “How she always said you and I, the middle two, were the keystones?  The ones who’d keep it all together?  Us—and the Blessed Virgin?”

Mark feels certain Luke can’t have forgotten—that he must remember how wrong she’d been.

It is ten years now since Matthew, the eldest, fell in Fallujah, barely seven since Johnny, the baby, heroin-hazed and emaciated, succumbed in a Pittsburg back alley.

Poor Kathleen.  Poor Ma.  So Catholic.  So naïve, he thinks.

Fortunate, too.

Except for Dad’s passing, she’d missed the worst of the crash and burn.

Mark wonders how she would’ve born it—Matt and Johnny—the dead ends of her superstition?  He wonders how she would’ve reconciled the Virgin’s failure to keep the four apostles safe, to steer their paths along the straight and narrow?

As if that had ever been a possibility where he’s concerned!

Mark thinks it something of a cosmic joke, how, despite all her rosaries, those stations of the cross, Kathleen had drawn him—the joker, a sodomite, from the stacked deck of her ova.

“Ma couldn’t give up the Holy Ghost,” he says, grasping at straws.

“Johnny used to say Ma made a fetish of faith,” Luke offers.  “That’s why she was determined one of us should be a priest.”

Like a poor relation starved for a tidbit of intimacy, Mark feels a burst of gratitude.

“How do you mean?” he asks, desperate to move closer.

“Johnny theorized having a priestly son would’ve been like a flesh and blood icon to Ma.  Something real to complement the plaster of paris tchotchkes in her curio,” Luke says, self-censoring a laugh. “John was maybe fourteen at the time but plenty savvy.  He and Freddy McCormick already sneaking into Miss Gresham’s shed to blow weed and each other.”

Mark chokes on this unexpected morsel, sputters into his wine glass.

“You’re joking!” he gasps.  “Ma’s ecclesiastic!  Little Johnny going down n’dirty with McCormick?  Christ, that guy was, what?  Two years younger than I?  Must’ve been at least twenty-one, the fucking pederast!”

Luke is quick to counter: “You forget—John was only three when Dad died.  Older men drew him.  Matt was long-gone to the Air Force by then.  I would’ve been sixteen.  And you weren’t—you were at University,” he says, pouring out the last of the wine.  “John wanted to be with older guys.  I thought you knew,” Luke says evenly.  “It was the same when I visited him in Pittsburg.  I think he was working the streets for drug money at the end.”

A heavy silence opens between them; long moments stretch before Luke says incongruously, “McCormick’s not a bad guy.  He’s a paramedic.  An ‘EMT’, I believe they call them now.”

Mark presses thumbs to temples, considers which is the appropriate reaction—laughter or tears?  He can’t understand how Luke manages it—the dispassion.

“At least—at least Ma got it right with us?” he ventures, hoping for the best.  “Who else but you could keep me together?”

Who else, indeed?

Luke shrugs, fiddles with his goblet.  “I don’t have any wisdom to offer,” he answers, blue-gray eyes glancing away.

And there it is again, the extraordinary coolness, Luke switching focus, switching off.  Luke swiping at his mega-pixelled smartphone.

“I think you shouldn’t—shouldn’t blame yourself,” he says.  “Anybody—any of your friends would say the same.”

Mark isn’t so sure.

His ‘friends’ haven’t exactly been coming out of the woodwork to offer support.  A few cards and calls, posts to his social network page after Tom’s accident.  But no one keeping vigil with him at his lover’s deathbed.  No friend attending him afterward through the long dog days of July.

“Tom was a sweet guy, and you had some good years,” Luke—eyes glued to his touch screen—says.  “But he—he was a grown man.”

Mark wonders if Luke can feel it: the chilled past tense rolling off his tongue.

“You did what you could,” he says, finger scrolling. “Everything to—to help him break his addictions.”

Only for the coup de grâce does little brother deign eye contact: “It was Tom made the choice to leave.  And he’s the one decided to drive impaired.”

Mark doesn’t miss how quickly Luke’s attention reverts to his cell, to business as usual.

It stings that little brother—Mister big-shot ‘literary agent!’—offers so much less than he can afford.  Blood ties ought to count for something—something approximating intimacy, Mark thinks.

So where has it gone?

Looking for clues, he mines his brother’s impassive face, wonders what or who could be responsible.

Perhaps Connie? is where he settles.  Connie, become now wife and chief breadwinner.

Once again, Mark considers his sister-in-law’s part in yesterday’s airport snub.

He still has Luke’s text on his cell—the one that arrived while he was changing planes in Salt Lake:

Lukes Message

Of course, he’d been hurt!  Hurt by the implied slight, by the suggestion his arrival posed an inconvenience.

By the fifty-buck cab fare he’d had to pay.

Little brother’s not a paycheck-to-paycheck-stiff like some of us, Mark couldn’t help fuming during the long cross-city ride from the airport.

Not over worked either.

It is a year since Luke left the big-leagues, deserting an A-list agency in a risky solo move. “A step toward more human contact,” he’d called it.   “And less corporate B.S.  Less grief.”  Sure enough, the few clients who’d gone with him didn’t seem to be keeping him occupied twenty-four-seven.

How convenient that Connie—suddenly the hotshot attorney—was billing into six figures.

Mark cringes at the memory of how smug she’d been, she, Connie, at dinner the previous night, at the condescending way his sister-in-law had brayed about that precious restaurant, like it was the greatest thing since unprotected sex.  And again later, chopsticks poking daintily at her ‘tea salad’ (Tea salad, for Christ’s sake!), when she’d deigned to speak of Tom.

“A good thing it happened late at night,” she’d sighed wearily.  As if goodness factored into the equation.  “Any earlier and pedestrians might’ve been injured.  Thank God that didn’t happen!”

Yes, thank God it had only been Tom!

All Connie, all evening, was the way it went down. Connie chattering like a society diva—jabbering about an upcoming formal affair, art auction or something: “I broke down and bid five thou for the Hempel … expensive, but great colors for the dining room … and such a good cause!”

Like a fucking carnival barker, she’d been determined to reel in Luke’s attention: “You can corner Nicholson there … sell him on those revisions to chapter two he’s resisted … he responds to champagne … and don’t forget to pick up your tux …”  Etc., etc.  Nearly every word directed at her husband—at Luke, who’d barely managed six words in succession.

So, how has it come to this, Mark marvels?

“Hello?  Earth to Mark.  You there?”

How suddenly Luke the mind reader?  Little brother calling him out?  Calling him back?

Mark can’t help laughing at the irony.

“I’m here!” he answers.

The lie springs easily.

“Just retrieving my foot from beneath young Edgar.  He’s heavier than he looks.”

Luke goes to the kitchen counter, fetches an organic doggie treat, the kind Connie says the vet recommends.  For the first time, Mark notices how trim his brother has become, like one of those beautifully gaunt, male models in a fashion magazine.  Men with lean rubber-band muscles, flat stomachs, and fashionably mussed hair just graying at the temples.

Self-consciously, Mark sucks in his gut.  Even in khakis and a sweater his brother looks ready for prime time.

“Here boy!  Here Edgar!”

Luke’s voice is affectionate but firm.  “Come!  Sit!  Give your poor Uncle a break,” he commands.  “Debbie will be here soon to take him off our hands.”

Mark stifles a laugh, thinks what a shame it’s taken this long for his place in the familial scheme to be established—relative to a labrador retriever.  Uncle to gentlemanly ‘Edgar,’ who attends doggie day camp several times a week at forty dollars a pop.  Mark tries to imagine it—all the well-mannered, neutered tail wagging; the Bartlebys and Biffs, the Daisys and Dakotas, frisking civilly—only the occasional butt sniff—in a canine paradise.

“She, the dog camp lady—Debbie, that is.  She used to run a nursery school.  Toddlers,” Luke says playing psychic again.  “Apparently canines are more profitable—and less risky.”

Toddlers.

The word pricks Mark’s memory.  Calls him back to …

Luke phoning on a hot August night.  His brother’s voice barely recognizable; his message from the hospital delivered in gasping bits and pieces: saying that something was wrong; something wrong with Peter.  That he’d stopped breathing.

Saying that his only child had stopped being alive.

“Oh!  Mother of God!” Mark cries, his turn to gasp.  His turn for shame.  “Luke, I’m so sorry!  It’s this … this week, isn’t it?”

SIDS, it had been.  Rare at eleven months.

He’d been unable to attend the funeral.  Unable to risk leaving Tom, and too broke given all their medical expenses.

Luke shrugs, stoops to massage the dog’s ears.  “Yesterday,” he says as Edgar, ever obliging, rolls over, exposes his belly.  “August second.  Two years.”

Mark feels a chill.  “Jesus,” he says.  “I remember.”

Almost against his will, he remembers other things too: the deepening lines around Connie’s eyes last evening, the mauve circles.  The way she’d kept after Luke.  And something else: fragments of a long ago phone conversation, the one time he’d spoken with his sister-in-law after Peter’s death.  And how she’d cried.

“My poor baby!  He’s not that strong, you know.  How’s he going to cope with the dark?  With the mystery?  The always being alone with that?”

Words to that effect.

She’d meant the not knowing why, Mark understands.  She’d meant the thousand little everyday reminders that nobody else feels.  And the pain.

She’d meant Luke.

For a moment, he thinks he will cross the room.  Take hold of the man.  Thinks to pull his brother closer.

“Connie messaged,” Luke interrupts.  “Says not to forget about my tux.  More wine?”

Instead, Mark stands in place, reaches for the ceiling.  A good long stretch.  Thinks how universal it is.  A cliché, even.  Thinks how there is always something else.  Something in the way.  Some grief hanging around.

“No,” he says.  “I expect we’ve had enough.”

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About jaurquhart

Jack Andrew Urquhart was born in the American South. Following undergraduate work at the University of Florida, Gainesville, he taught in Florida's public schools. He earned a Master of Arts degree in English, Creative Writing, from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he was the winner of the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Award for Fiction (1991). His work has appeared online at Clapboard House Literary Journal, Crazyhorse Literary Journal, and Standards: The International Journal of Multicultural Studies. He is the author of So They Say, a collection of self-contained, inter-connected stories and the short story, They Say You Can Stop Yourself Breathing. Formerly a writing instructor at the University of Colorado’s Writing Program, Mr. Urquhart was, until 2010, a senior analyst for the Judicial Branch of California. He resides in southern California.
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2 Responses to Poor Relations, new short fiction by @jackaurquhart

  1. Another sensitive, beautifully crafted piece of short fiction. You really are a stylist, Jack, while I’m more of a story-teller. Does that make any sense? Theme? I think I would say, we are each of us locked up in our own griefs, restricting our ability to relate to the griefs of others for fear our own will be exposed.

    • jaurquhart says:

      Hello, Lorinda. Thanks for stopping by, and yes, your comments do make sense — in both our cases. I hadn’t thought of it before, but “stylist” seems apt enough for my work, and surely story-telling is right for yours. As for the theme you suggest, that too seems appropriate. Kind of you to take the time for my little story; much appreciated. Best, Jack

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