A Straight Arrow
By Nathan Leslie
Kevin is the only one who doesn’t sit. The others are pleated, tan and olive-drab and gray, sitting in arm chairs, discussing the latest film version of Wuthering Heights.
His shoulders slump forward, not out of any lack of confidence, mind-you. His body is hunched on the edge of the hearth, gargoyle-like. He is wearing a Bill Belichick-style ripped sweatshirt (Kevin’s features ARMY, however) and his jeans are spotted with oil or grease blotches. He wears his VT baseball cap backwards. I wonder if college sports fans would find his dual-allegiances disturbingly contradictory—I’m in the dark on such matters.
I’m standing in the doorway at the edge of enlightened conversation. Kevin glances at me and offers me a snappy one-fingered salute—back to his temple and then forward. As usual he’s listening. I watch his eyes dart back and forth from speaker to speaker. He doesn’t look bored at all, even when the conversation turns to which actor made a better Heathcliff. And so forth.
My sister, who sits next to him in a wingback, pats his knee in sympathy. To me this gesture communicates something essential about their relationship. She understands his outsider stance. He never ushers a complaint or seek to change subjects to something more closely akin to one of his interests.
Kevin nods and briefly tips the side edge of his maroon Tech cap upwards.
“Out of all the literary characters, which one do you find the most compelling?’
The lists—Kevin loves rankings, pecking orders.
“Well, Hamlet of course. Lear and Othello,” my father says. “Most of the Shakespearean tragedies and histories feature extremely compelling heroes.”
“Bloom and Daedalus,” my mother chimes in. She sips gently from her slender champagne flute. “Mrs. Dalloway. Emma.”
“Jason from The Sound and the Fury,” my sister says. The fire crackles and hisses behind Kevin.
He half-turns his head. He nods, takes it all in.
“Nothing surprising here,” I say.
“I don’t know, we could blabber on and on,” my mother says. “What do you think?”
“Daffy Duck. Followed by Elmer Fudd,” Kevin says, flashing a sly smile.
“Can never be serious, even in answering his own question.”
Kevin officially entered into the family proper, of course, on the day he wed my sister some years back. However, his unofficial entrance into our circle occurred several years before, during the stage in Claire’s relationship which was at one time called courtship.
Kevin comes from a rougher family (to use my mother’s terminology). His father owns a cinder block business and Kevin grew up believing in the potential of the cinder block. He ate cinder block food, slept under cinder block walls—not literally, of course, but this is the general idea. One balmy night (moths pinging against the exterior sunroom lighting) Kevin confided in me that when he grew up he knew he would eventually fill his father’s footsteps, even if he didn’t want to. He did not utter the word “trapped,” and perhaps I am reading too much into it. On the other hand…
Kevin’s mindset strikes me as simultaneously medieval and fatalistic, but also refreshingly devoid of pretense and East Coast intellectual striving (what is left of it). As a counterpoint, I told Kevin that I grew up not knowing if I would be a doctor or a lawyer or an investment banker or an academic of some stripe (one must have a contingency). That I chose the latter path was perhaps as much a matter of slap dash luck as anything. Fate for Kevin; luck for me.
However, Kevin went to college anyway. When I asked him for what purpose (and implicitly if he felt predetermined to take over the cinder block business) he admitted he didn’t know: that’s just what people my age did after high school.
“I didn’t make it. Three semesters in and I found myself distracted for lack of a better word. I partied too hard—that’s a definite.”
Unlike many other people I know, Kevin thinks about what he says before he says it. He’s never knee-jerk.
In college he played rugby (he went on scholarship). In high school he played football, but competition being what it was he found an entry point into rugby much easier (and profitable).
Kevin looks like a rugby player. He’s six feet four and two forty three; muscles upon muscles; head like a buffalo. But his eyes are alert and penetrating and his face sharp and defined by a rather muted intelligence: I don’t mean to sound patronizing, but Kevin is a lot smarter than he seems upon first glance.
Initially I thought he would find himself overwhelmed intellectually by “the family.” In a sense, he’s marginalized by topics which are too bookish for his educational background, but then when the topic shifts closer to Kevin’s comfort point he’s as insightful as anyone else in the room, if not moreso.
I am aware that I sound like a condescending prick.
All of this is to say that initially we thought Claire and Kevin’s union was a mismatch, at least socially.
I’d see Kevin surrounded by our modern and Asian art, seated at our antique Arts and Crafts table—our house is very Lloyd Wright, late period—and I’d think “fish out of water.”
But he never embarrassed himself early on.
Then about three months into his relationship with Claire he arrived at dinner with a nicely bound edition of Edmund Wilson. We were all ve-ry impressed—believing he couldn’t possibly know who Edmund Wilson was (college drop-out and all). But he did. He gave the book to my parents as a gesture of my gratitude, he said.
“Be still my beating heart,” my mother said.
“Sting? Really mother?” Claire said, jibbing.
“No, he got that from Shakespeare, I think,” I said.
My father nodded.
“A very nice touch, Kevin,” my father said. Kevin doffed an invisible cap, a sign of humor and humility.
This was a turning point for me.
Then we ate. I’m sure it was an oyster stew, plus chicken fricassee, and three grain bread.
I can’t at this remove recall the topic of mealtime conversation exactly, but I do remember that after dinner, father drank his Martell and Kevin asked about the art.
“I never really took an art history class in school,” he said.
“It’s okay,” Claire said—my mother was in the kitchen arranging the mouse and preparing espresso. She pointed around the room with a self-pleased sashay.
“That is a Picasso print. That’s a late Matisse rip-off. But that little one over there that’s an original Modigliani. It’s no big deal though: who doesn’t own a Modigliani?”
Kevin formed a querying facial expression. He didn’t say anything.
I felt for him; at this moment we became brothers.
Kevin’s ability to rise above the fray of pithy conversation and superficial witticisms made him, in fact, superbly suited to entry into our family. He became a kind of voyeur to our pseudo-intellectual blather. If he was not able to either (a) participate or (b) ignore, Kevin’s entire union with Claire would collapse. In fact, though my family remains dear to me, Kevin was the one who first opened my eyes to the rather artificial nature of our traditions.
All of this is to say that Kevin and I began spending time together apart from family gatherings. Kevin’s idea initially, but one which I quickly embraced.
Though I was indoctrinated into the belief that sports were the bastion of the ignorant—Kevin asked if I wouldn’t just like to go “shoot some hoops.” I realized after a minute or two that this had nothing to do with actual shooting—it referred to basketball, and after a lull I understood it to be common parlance.
“Sure,” I said. I had played basketball a total of maybe six or seven times in my life, but I did always find it enjoyable. Diversions—and sports are, if nothing else a kind of mindless diversion—are part of human nature, also. Why not experience this? Why not live?
So I sat in Kevin’s dusty Jeep and we rolled along to a park with two courts side-by-side and Kevin pulled out two tall water bottles and the basketball. The courts—from what I knew at the time—were rough: weeds sticking out from cracks; the nets were down. As an uncoordinated, not-particularly-competitive guy I didn’t really know what to do out there. I couldn’t dribble the ball. I could barely shoot. I ran lethargically and stumbled or tripped half the time (Kevin graciously blamed my shoddy footwear). Despite his girth, Kevin moved beautifully. He would jump up and shoot the ball in one smooth motion, the ball rising and falling and sinking right through the chain.
I have never had so much fun in my life.
Our sweaty clothes heavy on our backs, we sat on the hot asphalt and talked.
“There’s no reason to judge you,” I said.
“Glad you’re in the family. Gives me some hope.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re different than Claire and especially my parents. But it’s working anyway.”
“Is it? I’m not sure. I mean your folks are good people. It’s just not knowing where I stand sometimes.”
“They are subtle, you know.”
“That’s a good word for it,” he said. “Do me a favor, tell me if I’m ever headed on the wrong track. I
don’t want to do that.”
“You got it,” I said.
We drank water and dripped with sweat.
I would have days like this with Kevin frequently. But when he and Claire had children, I saw him less, and then more later on when he needed a few hours to unwind.
Inevitably he’d destroy me at basketball (or some such) and then we’d talk. Sometimes if it was too cold or two hot or rainy—we’d go shoot pool instead (he always won at that, also).
“The children,” he said once. “They’re changing everything. I mean….”
“In a positive manner, correct?”
“Well…you know how it goes.”
“No, not at all,” I said. And I didn’t. A lifelong bachelor, I had no idea how it goes.
“I mean sex,” he said. “It’s not…”
“Different than before?”
“You could say that.”
“This isn’t something you want to discuss, I’m sure.”
“There are other things as well. Your sister—well, you know her better than me.”
“Not anymore,” I said.
He said the children made him feel like an orphan somehow. He was secondary, all of a sudden, to his own progeny. Kevin’s crisis was that he felt forced to compete for time and space. Often he felt shut out, at a loss. His feelings, he said, were taking over his own best instincts. I’m paraphrasing.
Often I’d change the subject. In those days Kevin particularly enjoyed discussing speculative historical theories (if he had completed college, I wonder if these wouldn’t have withered). I patiently listened to his latest explanation for the emergence of the Easter Island statues, the Sphinx and so forth. He believed Neanderthals walked the Earth in the late 1600’s. At the end of his conjectures he’d admit: “These are just theories though.”
At family gatherings Kevin loved to ask sweeping questions, point blank. He was especially fond of rankings.
--Who do you think is the best musician of all time?
--What is the best movie ever made?
--Who was the greatest football player ever to play the game?
--What is the most delicious type of cheese?
--What is the tastiest beer you’ve ever had?
Part of me thinks his questions were designed not to promote discussion so much as to provoke it. Or—put another way—Kevin excelled at steering the conversation into his comfort zone with these simple (simplistic?) queries. To me they were and are also indicative of some key aspect of Kevin. He’s a straight arrow. He wanted all cards laid on the table. They rarely ever were. I hemmed and hawed and I was trying to appease him. My father often demurred and my mother shrugged and said “it’s not a contest, is it?”
Five years and change after the birth of their second child, my mother called me to relay the news: Claire was leaving Kevin. She presumed it was her decision, and that such a decision was based on her desire for a more “like-minded” match. It had to do with compatibility, she related; this was not an issue of high drama.
My mother was and is, I’m sure, torn. On the one hand she detested the idea of divorce and believed that couples who entered that level of commitment should not break it. On the other hand, my parents looked down upon Kevin, despite his attempts otherwise.
“This is a man who traffics in cinder blocks,” she said. “That’s who he is.”
“Traffics—you make them sound like narcotics.”
“He’s not exactly an intellect, as you well know.”
“I know nothing of the sort. I could feel my grip on the telephone tightening. He’s a smart guy. He’s just not in your mold, that’s all. He’s not a doctor or a lawyer.”
“I’m not arguing with you, Daniel,” she said. “Don’t shoot the messenger.”
“Sorry, isn’t there some quote from Shakespeare you can pull out of your hat to illustrate that particular point?”
I still meet up with Kevin maybe once a month or so for basketball. Perhaps it’s his best means of communicating with Claire. He has visiting rights with their children twice a month, which he explains as a strange circumstance.
Claire has—in my view—turned into a different kind of person. I love my sister of course, but the divorce has diluted her. She has an edge now—and a wicked cackle she never displayed prior. She has a new husband—a pediatrician (“only a pediatrician,” my mother says), who is okay though I find him overly distant and of course tainted by the adulterous courtship. I play nice.
I’ve told Kevin, however, that he is still a brother to me and that if he ever needs anything I’m at his everlasting disposal. He must have, in his sincere way, taken me at my word.
“I need a place to stay,” he admitted.
He’s sleeping in my guest room indefinitely. My honored guest.
Often I will lurk outside the room after I’m certain he has fallen asleep. If I listen closely I can hear the soft whistle of air through his nostrils. It calms me somehow. We all endure in ways strange and unusual.
Nathan Leslie’s nine books of fiction include Root and Shoot, Sibs, and Drivers. He is also the author of The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, a novel, and Night Sweat, a poetry collection. His work has appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including Boulevard, Shenandoah, North American Review, and Cimarron Review. Nathan was series editor for The Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for many years. He is currently interviews editor at Prick of the Spindle and writes a monthly music column for Atticus Review. His work appears in Best Small Fictions 2016. Check him out on Twitter and Facebook as well as here.