The Walls Are Too Blank, The Holes Are Too Deep

As my father did with me and Tobias, I took my family camping. When I told Roberta that it was time to prepare to lose one of our sons, she walked into our bedroom and packed. Her eyes were pooled with tears, but she didn’t cry.

“Roberta,” I said, shutting the door behind me.

“Please don’t,” she said. Her lips were quivering, and her entire body was flimsy as she folded clothes and rolled socks into one another, as though someone had removed her bones. She wouldn’t look at me.

“You knew this would happen eventually,” I said.

She dropped a shirt into the open suitcase. “How can you be so calm?”

I swallowed and exhaled. “Because someone has to be.”

Roberta refused to answer Tommy and Jason’s questions as she dropped their backpacks and sleeping bags in the trunk. The boys followed her back and forth up the driveway and wore looks of fright and confusion, disturbing expressions on the faces of seventeen and fifteen-year-old boys. I knew that even adolescents can feel tension when it rises up and seeps into all parts of a house, because I’d felt the same thing when my mother began moving like some spectral shell of herself after my father told me and Tobias with no warning that we were going camping. It had sounded like any other announcement of a family trip, but the hollow look in my mother’s eyes, the hushed whispers coming from my parents’ bedroom, and the way she wouldn’t look me in the eye as she filled our battered cooler all twisted my stomach and told me that the gloomy air around her was about more than going into the woods together.

The car was silent: Tommy and Jason didn’t whisper dirty jokes they thought their mother and I couldn’t make out; Roberta wasn’t humming along to the radio; even the air didn’t seem to be whistling through the cracked windows. I hated that silence, and I gripped the steering wheel hard enough that my hands hurt, but I ignored the pain because it wasn’t real pain. It was nothing like what was to come.

I looked back at my sons through the rearview mirror. They were each looking out their respective windows, glancing back at one another every now and then. Eventually their youth broke through the thick dread hanging in the car and they started whispering to one another and hitting each other in the arm every few minutes. But Roberta kept staring forward, unable or unwilling to look me in the eye. I knew she was feeling a mixture of rage and sorrow. Even though I’d assured her no one would die—at least not now, not today—perhaps she didn’t believe me, and I couldn’t, didn’t, blame her for that. Perhaps she’d forgotten, but how could she? How could my wife of twenty years forget the secret I’d told her years ago, only days after I’d first told her I loved her, after I knew that I would marry her one day? How could she forget that her son was going to get sick, that his body would fall apart, and that no doctor, no specialist or scientist or anyone in the world would be able to do anything about it?

The car was silent: Tommy and Jason didn’t whisper dirty jokes they thought their mother and I couldn’t make out; Roberta wasn’t humming along to the radio; even the air didn’t seem to be whistling through the cracked windows.

Perhaps she hated that it was going to start somewhere that held such vivid memories, ones filled with laughter and warmth, even the mishaps, like when Tommy was nine and nearly fell into the campfire, coming out with only a sprained wrist and a first degree burn on his right hand that healed quickly, leaving behind a quarter-sized blemish on the knuckles of his ring and pinky fingers.

But I had to do it there. The first rule: it needs to be somewhere familiar.

*    *     *

My father gave me a small ledger when he told me. The foremost rule, he said, more important than where you do it, even, is that no one else, not even your wife, ever reads this book. He tapped it and then held it out to me. Only you and your son, he said, can ever see it, can ever know what it says.

When I first looked through it, I half expected the letters inside to transform into words that would spell out, step-by-step and word-by-word, exactly what I should say—what I could say—to my own son. What I should feel when I sat him down and told him our family’s secret. How I could begin to understand and accept the truths of our family’s wretched legacy, and how I could make my son do the same. But what I found was paragraph after paragraph of vague directives, threadbare advice, and blunt, angry rules. Rules without explanation. Predictions—accurate ones—without consolations. Things that would happen to your brother—“your,” the book said, that vague, malleable word, “your,” impersonal and wide enough to apply to me, my father, my son, my ancestors, my descendents. A word that represented the hollowness, the uselessness, of having clouded answers. Letters that would never numb the pain of guilt that hangs on “your” shoulders, heavier when you know that, really, none of this is your fault. But if not you, then who? Who else can carry that burden?

When I first read the book, I threw it across my bedroom before I was finished. I knocked over a family photograph, shattered the glass in the frame. I thought about burning the book, watching our family’s curse disappear into the sky as nothing more than ash. These dreams left me drenched in sweat and out of breath.

No one in my family has ever known why these rules exist, or why this thing happens, but, as my father told me, we know they must be followed, or the consequences are worse: instead of losing one son, he said when he first told me, one hand still gripping the book, the other gripping my knee, you’ll lose both. I’ll lose both. His smile was thin and limp, one that I would see for the rest of my life when I looked into a mirror.

You must wait until your elder son—you will have two (and this you will not control)—has been seventeen for three weeks. You must take both of them somewhere familiar, somewhere they can be at ease, without explanation or warning. Send the one son off, then explain things to the other. You may take your wife, but you do not have to. This, of all things, is the one flexibility you possess.

So I took Roberta, because I needed her. But afterward I wished that I had not.

*    *     *

Tommy and Jason pitched our tents on opposite sides of the fire pit, and I watched Roberta set out the boys’ things in the smaller green one. Neither of them asked if she needed help or said they could do it themselves, even though they’d been doing so for years. They watched their mother unfurl the sleeping bags, smoothing out the crinkles and bumps as though her hand were an iron, and fluff the pillows she’d stuffed into the trunk of the car. She sniffled audibly, coughing a few times. I wanted to be angry at her somehow, feel ire at her for making it clear that this wasn’t a normal camping trip, but I couldn’t. She was, I realized, doing her best to fake a sense of calmness, but the pain she was feeling was breaking through, cracking the steady exterior she hadn’t had time to practice or perfect. I looked at my sons: Tommy had his arms crossed, and I could tell he wanted to ask what was going on, as if he could smell something amiss tainting the air like rotten fruit. Jason looked up toward Tommy, waiting for his cues, always walking in the shadow of his older brother.

When I tried to bring up collecting some wood to make a fire, Roberta’s forehead wrinkled like a stormy sky and she waved the idea away, suggesting we eat some of the sandwiches she’d packed first. Tommy and Jason warily agreed, taking them out of their plastic baggies as if they half-suspected they were poisoned. The air buzzed with mosquitoes and the thick paste of discomfort. We sat on logs, Roberta with Tommy, Jason and I opposite them. Sitting next to him, I realized just how tall he’d gotten, almost as tall as Tommy was, his golden legs dusted with tiny blond hairs that shimmered in the setting sun splayed out in front of him like long, lean yard sticks.

I felt an immense sadness, and couldn’t look at him, not at any of them, so I stared toward the sun as it disappeared, spackling the ground with the light that shone through the holes between the trees.

*    *     *

Both sons will come home from the woods, of course. You don’t have to actually do either of them any direct harm, but you know that they will both be damaged. The hurt may not appear yet, no bruises, no limps, no wincing external pain, but you know it is there, because you feel it, too. You feel it every day, have for the last twenty-five years, but it feels sharper, more acute, when you first step through your front door when you return home. The son who doesn’t know will shrug off the strange, strained trip, his teenage hormones distracting him from the quilt of sadness strumming through the car on the drive home. You will look at the other son’s face, drooping and pale, through the rearview mirror on the way home, knowing what he is feeling and thinking because you have thought and felt it, too.

While you are out there, though, you must have the conversation. Wait until the one son is far off, out of earshot, and then explain as much as you can to the one sitting next to you, the one trying to look away from you even when you tell him you’re being serious. Be prepared for the disbelief and doubt, then the wonderment, the questions about how and why and where it comes from. You must simply tell him, a sick understanding of his anger and confusion toiling through your stomach, that no, you don’t know where it comes from. You can’t explain it. No one has, for as long as you can remember. Be ready, after you’ve quietly berated him, to see the hollow look on his face, the one you’ll be able to discern through the darkness. He will ask how you can be so calm, so unwavering and blunt. Be ready for the plaintive sigh you’ll hear peep through his lips despite the overwhelming sound of crickets humming through the trees.

When it’s all over and you are home, you’ll find him staring at the wall regularly, when he’s not looking at his brother for signs that it’s started, that is. Any time his brother coughs or complains of a headache he’ll worry, so much that sometimes he’ll get sick too, or be unable to sleep, his eyes bleary and his eyelids puffy as he eats breakfast before school. Your wife will roll away from you at night, and you’ll look up at the ceiling, awash in the silent loneliness that has followed you for so many years. And when your doomed son has to stay home from school sick, your wife and other boy will cry while you must be steady, clench your jaw, and tell them in quick whispers that no, this isn’t it. It hasn’t started yet, because it’s too early. He still has time.

You must accept your teenage son’s flimsy excuses for his tears, ignore the sucking of snot as he inhales, trying to compose himself. You must do so because you are putting him through a hellish thing, forcing him to be aware of but unable to say anything about what awaits his brother. You have gone through it as well, because you were the chosen son, chosen by nothing but your birth, and you understand what he feels, the gloomy tremor in his bones, the wondering: Why me? Why him? Why my brother? The what can I do? The knowing that the answer is nothing. I can do nothing. The worst answer. The answer that eats at you, the stagnant answer, the not-your-fault that drills into your bones with searing pain.

There are two other rules with unknown origins that no one dares defy: no one can explain why it must happen, or how. And no one may go seeking answers. Trying to understand this thing, this curse, this dark mark that follows the shadows of your family endlessly, will only cause illness, cutting, eating pain, to spring up in you, too, where it does not belong.

*    *     *

I finally separated the boys. Roberta insisted we hike to a familiar outcropping of rocks a little less than a mile from our campsite to watch the sun set, its light pooling over the tops of trees we could see stretched out below. As we hiked there, the boys leading the way and me at the rear, Roberta kept herself between them and me. Enough sun was splotching through the tree trunks that I could see the bitter look on her face whenever she looked back at me, the almost taunt in her empty smile, the conviction that she would somehow stop the inevitable from happening.

We finally reached the tableau of rock, a long slate of clay-colored stone that looked like a barren plain, beyond which the forest dropped off. Leaning out, I could see the tops of trees below me, the highway a few miles away, a little stone river cutting a winding path through the swath of branches. For a while we stood in a row. I put my arm around Roberta’s waist and squeezed her hip, but when she turned her head just so, enough that I could see the skewering look in her eyes, I dropped my arm to my side. No one spoke as the sun crept down until Tommy announced that he needed to pee and walked off.

I turned to look at Roberta, who took my hand, squeezing it as hard as she could; I didn’t let the pain she was causing cross my face.

“Jason,” I said. “I need to talk to you.”

His fifteen-year-old eyes were filled with light from the sun, which glossed them over so I couldn’t quite see the look on his face. Roberta started crying, but she shuffled in the direction Tommy had gone. I knew she would keep him busy. Despite her hatred, her indignation, her resistance, she knew that losing one, years from now, was better than losing both, something neither of us would ever say, knowing it wouldn’t fix anything or make what was happening any better. She must have felt the betrayer, the Brutus stabbing Tommy in the small of his back, slowly drizzling his blood out over the years to come. My hands trembled again, and I wrapped them up together.

“Yeah, Dad?” Jason said. His voice had started getting deep, lower in pitch than my own.

I took a deep breath and then, as the sun disappeared and night fell over the woods, I told him our family’s legacy.

*    *     *

When you are alone with him, you must hand him the book and begin to explain what you’ve kept hidden from everyone else in your life. You must tell your son that, for as long as anyone can remember, each generation in your family bears two sons, exactly two sons, but that one of them must be sacrificed for the sake of the other. You don’t know why. No one knows why, and it isn’t worth wondering why, because wondering—why him and not you, or why either of you, or why any of it—does no good. It just leaves you raw and scared. Weak. Crumbled. Tired.

Be prepared to snuff out interruptions, to tell your son to please not ask questions now because there is little time to explain. You will feel guilty for your tone, and you will let that guilt seep into you, getting clogged up in the rest of the self-hatred that is stacked up inside you. Then tell him as quickly as you can: he’ll need to read the book on his own and keep it secret, but that for now, you can tell him that his brother is going to get very sick in a few years, and that no one will be able to fix him. That he must get sick so that you do not, and if you tell him about this then you, too, will grow ill, and you know all of this because you’ve been told by your father, who was the younger brother, just like you are. Just like your son is.

Your son will cut in, point out that you don’t have a brother, and then you will tell him the whole story, that your brother does exist, in a hospital not far from your home, that yes, his mother does know but couldn’t say anything, because if the elder son ever finds out about his predecessors it will all fall apart and the illness will spread.

You will stare at him when you’re done explaining, when he tries to come up with loopholes, ways to help his brother, and you must smile sadly and tell him you know, that you thought the same things, that all of his solutions will result in both of them getting sick, and you, and your father, if he is still alive, as well. He will be quiet then, as night falls and the woods come alive with buzzing insects and a howling predator or two. You will dwell on this quiet. The silence from both of you will come from shock and pain, a hurt deeper than you will ever be able to put into words. Shortly thereafter your wife and elder son will reappear, him laughing at some joke he’s just made, she quietly staring through the burgeoning darkness, trying to catch your eyes. You will avoid her gaze.

Your son will stare at his hands, folded in his lap. You’ll put a hand on his knee and nod because he’s already hidden the book away in his back pocket. You’ll feel a queasiness because you won’t have had a chance to tell him about the guilt, to tell him that it’s normal and that he must expect it. His brother may get sick, but he, too, will be plagued, not by some mysterious, invisible poison coursing through his bones, but by a cloud of guilt that will follow him for the rest of his days.

But you needn’t worry about failing to communicate this. You know he will discover it quickly.

*    *     *

The only sounds in the hospital room were the blipping of a heart monitor and the soft whoosh of a ventilator; the only light came from a few fluorescent bulbs buzzing down a harsh, too-bright light that made the white, blank walls even bleaker. I stepped forward and rested my hands on the cold metal bedrail. Up close, I could see the bumps and veins of his skull, his head bare like a cue ball. His mouth was open, a gaping dark hole, ventilator tube poking out on the left side like an oversized straw. The plastic mask across his upper lip was a stark, rigid mustache.

“Hello, Tobias,” I said. I reached down and grabbed his palm. The skin of his hand was smoother than I expected. An IV needle was embedded in the back of it, leading up into a maze of plastic tubes connected to various bags and machines surrounding him like candles around a statue.

He looked, by and large, like a normal person in a normal coma. Except in the eyes. You had to look close, bend down and really look, to see that something wasn’t quite right behind those sealed eyelids. Not only did he lack eyelashes—those, too, had fluttered off in the days before his final collapse—but the curve of the skin covering his eyes wasn’t as it should be. Instead of curving outward, over the pupils and irises, Tobias’s eyelids curved inward, as though they were made of putty and someone had pushed the soft dough in with an index finger. His eyes had begun to retreat.

It was almost over for him. The final rule: the eyes retreat last. When the holes where they belong get too deep, too deep for eyes to exist there any longer, you’ll know he is in his final days.

“I told Jason, Tobias.” I squeezed his hand and stared at him. I didn’t expect any response, of course. My voice sounded too loud. “I told him. He knows about you. He knows everything.”

I hadn’t asked Jason if he wanted to meet his uncle. He didn’t need to see what would happen; he was afraid enough. He hadn’t spoken much the rest of the night, opting to lie in his sleeping bag, staring at the curved ceiling. When Tommy had asked him what was wrong, he’d rolled away from his brother and said he had a stomachache. We’d left the next morning. I tried to catch his gaze in the mirror as we drove, but he refused to look at me. I didn’t blame him, or Roberta. They would both turn from me in their anger, and I had accepted long ago that they would do so.

I held Tobias’ hand, staring at his face, the wrinkles on his forehead, his crooked nose, the cleft in his chin. I wondered how I would remember that face, the bumps of his cheekbones, the expansive space of his forehead. When he was gone for good and I would have nowhere to come back to if I needed to know what he looked like, what would I do? Where would I go? I’d had to remove all photographs of him, just in case. There would be no remembering. There would be no funeral. I gripped his hand tighter, trying to memorize the bumps of his bones.

“I told him. He knows about you. He knows everything.”

I couldn’t help but imagine Tommy, and I saw him growing up, his hair receding, the pains in his bones, his athletic build shrinking like some wilting flower unable to find water.

Tobias had decayed. It started with his hair, falling out in clumps in the shower, at the dinner table, when he went running in the evening after work. Then his teeth, his fingernails, his leg hair. It all fell away as though anything that could was jumping ship. I knew, the day he told me that he lost a tooth while eating a banana, that this was it. His skin had become smooth and blank, a wasteland, a pale desert. The tips of his fingers hurt, he said, when he pressed the buttons on the TV remote.

Something deep inside him was poisoning the rest.

He was at my house when the worst of it happened. He’d been staying with me for a while, before Roberta and I married, before Tommy and Jason were even a thought. He couldn’t live on his own anymore; Tobias had grown weak, his skin dry and cracked, his bones poking against the flesh at his elbows. His kneecaps looked like the rims of soda cans. He fell over in my living room, looking at a photograph of the two of us when we were kids, before any of it began. When I couldn’t wake him up, I knew the coma had come. I knew then that he’d finally paid the price for both of us. He never left the hospital after the ambulance carted him away.

I avoided looking at Tobias’ eyes, those sunken craters of ashy flesh. I couldn’t let myself picture Tommy’s own murky blue eyes swallowing themselves up, shrinking into little marbles as they retreated back toward his brain, leaving behind holes that one could fill with pennies.

I tried to picture Tobias’ face when he was still awake, when he was still really him, alive and full. I tried to see his eyes, wishing that I could see them, sharp and alive and happy. Conjure up some memory, I told myself, willed myself, commanded. Know what he looked like when he was happy, damn it, when you were happy, when everything was still alright, before you had this, this thing, this load on your arms that you didn’t ask for and you can’t cast off.

I shut my eyes, squeezing them tight. Colors burst through the blackness, fireworks that were dull, like everything was dull. Like Jason’s smile was dull. Like Roberta’s skin, and hips, and tears, her smile. I screamed to myself to remember Tobias’ eyes. I wished, I imagined, I cried. Tears started to fall, and, in that room, alone with the brother I’d had no choice but to abandon, I cried, hoping I could remember his eyes. Such a small thing, please, please, to hold on to, to let in. But no matter what, the sticky pool of my family’s curse blocked my way. An expansive, gray mass, a thing that will always plague us. I tried to see Tobias’ eyes, but I just couldn’t. I couldn’t remember what color they’d been.

J. Baumann HeadshotJoe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Tulane Review, Willow Review, Hawai’i Review, SNReview, Lindenwood Review, and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He teaches composition, creative writing, and literature at St. Charles Community College.