When I answered the phone and heard him say Jimbo I knew exactly who it was. It didn’t matter how long it had been since the last time I’d seen him. I slowly let my breath out before I spoke again.
-Mark, I said. It’s been a long time.-
-Yeah, he said. How you doin’ little brother?-
-Okay, I said. What about you?-
-Ah, he said. You know.-
We both waited. I guess neither one of us wanted to be the first one to continue.
-Look, Mark finally said. I wanted to see you. Will you meet me somewhere?–
I said, I don’t know. Things are kind of busy.-
-It won’t take long.-
-Alright, I said and he gave me the name of a bar. I told him I knew where it was.
He was a dozen years older than me. Grown up and gone from the house before I had made it to the second grade. Most of the time it felt like I didn’t even have a brother except for an occasional letter or a stray phone call in the middle of the night. I remember, when I turned 21, he just showed up out of the blue, laughing and hanging out with me and my friends like nothing was wrong. And he insisted on buying me my first beer. And a shot, he said. I had to do a shot and a beer. It was a good night and Mark seemed to be doing okay but in the morning he was gone with his scribbled note left on the front door–stay out of trouble kid, and then I didn’t hear from him again for another four years.
When Dad died I wondered if Mark would show up for the funeral. Him and Dad never got along too well. There was always something between them. I think they were too much alike. Both of them filled with restlessness. I remember Dad talking about all of the things he had wanted to do before he married Mom. I remember Mom telling me how Dad had wanted Mark to come work with him in the garage but Mark told Dad no. It broke your father’s heart, Mom said, but he never admitted it to Mark. Both of them could be really stubborn at times. Maybe Dad resented Mark for going off and doing his own thing. We never heard from Mark. I think Mom kept looking for him the night of the visitation but he never showed up. The next day at the funeral I could tell Mom was thinking about Mark but he never showed up and Mom and I never mentioned it.
Two years later when our Mom died Mark called me on the phone. He told me how sorry he was he couldn’t be there. He said it was just too hard. The connection wasn’t very good and his voice sounded far away. At one point I thought I had lost him and I almost hung up. But then I heard him again. Oh yeah, he said. Too bad about Dad, Jimbo, but I’m sure you took care of it. And before I could tell him what I really wanted to say the phone disconnected and he was gone.
So it was after ten and I knew I should’ve been going home but there I was heading toward this bar where Mark wanted to meet me. I could hear Kelly’s voice telling me I shouldn’t go. I could hear her saying I should tell my brother no. I should tell him I’m sorry but I can’t do it this time. But wives didn’t understand what it was like for brothers. Hell, I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t really understand it myself. I mean, how many times had I agreed to meet him? How many times had he asked me for money? And how many times had I given it to him? If Kelly ever found out. But like I said, sometimes, wives just didn’t understand.
It looked like a rough crowd when I entered the bar. I didn’t see Mark but I went ahead and took a seat along the wall. I ordered myself a beer and Mark appeared from out of nowhere. I barely recognized him. His head was shaved completely bald. He reminded me of Dad. The same eyes and his smile with that slight hint of mystery. Right then I realized my brother was getting old.
-Jimbo, he said.
I thought he sounded tired. He eased himself into the chair on the opposite side of the table. He ordered a ginger ale but I didn’t say anything. I just kept touching the sides of my glass with the tips of my fingers.
-How much do you need? I finally said.
I saw him laugh and then he closed his eyes.
-More than you’ll ever know, he said.
But he said it so softly I wondered if he meant to say it out loud. He looked right at me.
-Jimbo, he said. It’s not about money this time.-
-Well, I said. What is it?-
But Mark wasn’t in any hurry. He leaned back and ran his hand across the top of his bare head.
-So, how do you like it? He said.
I told him I’d thought about doing it a few times.
-But, I said. I don’t think the wife would approve–
-Oh, he said. So, are you in love?
I thought it was a strange question for my brother to ask me.
-Yes, I said. I guess I am.-
-Good, he said. You deserve it.-
I thought he was going to ask me about her but he just reached into his pocket.
-Here, he said. I have something for you.-
He opened up his hand and let the small stone drop on the table. I just looked at him.
-You don’t remember? He said.
-No. Should I?
-Well, Mark said. You gave it to me. You weren’t very old. You told me it would protect me.-
-And you kept it all these years? I said.
He shrugged and took a sip from his ginger ale.
-But why are you giving it to me? I asked.
-I don’t know, he said. I guess I don’t need it anymore-
I wasn’t sure what he meant but I could tell it was useless for me to ask. I picked up the stone and held it in my hand. I finished my beer and Mark bought me another one. Later, when we walked out to the parking lot I asked him if he needed a ride.
-No, he said. I’m not headed any place you are.-
He touched my arm.
-Stay out of trouble, kid, he said.
Then he turned and disappeared into the darkness.
Driving home I thought about the stone Mark had given to me and a memory came back to me. It was a birthday party when I turned eight. There were ten or twelve other kids and Mom made us hamburgers and homemade French fries. I remember we were all in the backyard. Mark wasn’t there but he showed up when Mom was getting ready to serve the cake. He was drunk and Dad and Mark got into a huge fight. Mark kept wanting to sing Happy Birthday to me and all of us kids thought he was funny but Dad told him he needed to leave. I remember how Mark pushed Dad and Dad rushed at him. I remember how Mark fell on the cake and we couldn’t help but laugh until Mom started crying and Dad told us kids to go in the house. Dad said he was going to take us to the food court in the mall and we could have anything we wanted. I remember Mark sitting on the ground with cake smeared in his hair and all over his clothes. I heard Dad telling him, maybe you shouldn’t be here when we get home. I remember the way Dad looked at Mom. It must’ve been later that night/, after I had gone to sleep, when Mark came into my room. I just remember waking up and seeing his face. He put his finger to his lips and told me to be quiet. That’s when I gave the stone to him. Because he said he was leaving and he might not see me for a really long time. I told him Denny found it down by the creek and he gave it to me. I said, it’ll protect you. I remember Mark said, oh yeah? From what? I told him, from anything, and he laughed. Okay buddy, he said. Okay. You better go back to sleep.