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October 03, 2022

Even-Steven

By Alex Z. Salinas

Will Valdez parked his car far enough from the cliff's edge. His brother waited there, leaning against his pickup truck, hands in his jean pockets, gazing at the small patch of city in the blue South Texas horizon.

Will got out of his car and shuffled slowly toward his brother. He felt nothing the closer he got. He hesitated before raising his hand to shake his brother's. It was quick.

"Good to see you, Willie."

"You too, Steve."

They looked at each other for a while before Steve pointed to the cliff's edge and said, "Let's go sit over there."

Will peered down and noticed the trees and boulders and rocks far below.

Helluva place to meet, he thought.

The brothers sat down and let their legs dangle.

"Remember when Pops used to take us to the valley and we'd run around Tía Nora's yard?" Steve asked softly.

"Yeah."

"The way the sky's all blue and shit, it kinda reminds me of that."

Steve smiled. Will didn't.

"So how's business? Still making the big bucks, Mr. Insurance Man?" Steve patted Will's back, a peace offering.

"Not yet," Will answered.

"You'll get there someday."

"Hopefully."

Awkward silence.

"Well, yer prolly wondering why I asked you to meet me out here in the middle of fuckin' nowhere." Steve sounded amused.

Will wanted to say, "No shit, Sherlock," but stayed quiet. When he'd Googled Sombra Cliff and saw how far he'd have to drive, his first thought was, Fucking seriously?

"They taught me lots of stuff while I was in rehab, bro. Stuff I wish I woulda known a long time ago. They said having conversations outdoors, places like here, helps the natural energy flow of the body, or some shit. Basically, all yer stimulis get activated so it's easier to talk. Sounds gay, I know, but I thought it seemed cool."

"Good view," Will said blandly. He noticed Steve's stupid smile fade a bit.

"Yessir," Steve agreed.

If you looked into the blue South Texas horizon, you'd see a watery wave. The July air hot and still. The water in the ravine below Sombra Cliff had dried up months before, when warm air currents from the Mexican deserts blew north. For the latter half of the year, the land surrounding Sombra Cliff hardly saw a drop of rain.

Will didn't want to be there. That much was obvious. The back of his T-shirt was already damp. Having a wet back, literally, made him think of childhood, and he wasn't in any mood to think about that.

"Look man, first I wanna say thanks for coming out here. I know the drive probably took you a while, so I appreciate that. But I don't wanna waste yer time, so I'll stop bullshitting."

Will saw Steve shift his body some. He'd already anticipated what his brother was about to say. He'd rehearsed this act in his head.

"I've been thinking a lot about the accident, bro, about being in rehab and all ... look, I fucked up, man. I fucked up real bad." Steve cleared his throat.

The word "accident" hit Will's ears like a hammer. It wasn't an accident.

"Sorry bro, this is hard for me."

"Keep going," Will said sharply.

Steve registered the coldness in his brother's voice. For a second, he didn't think he'd be able to continue. Maybe this was a bad idea after all. He looked up at the sky, closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. He'd get through this. He needed to. He owed his big brother that much.

"I know yer fuckin' pissed. I get that. But I've done a lot of what they call self-reflection. I've thought a lot about things lately. I wanna talk to you cuz yer my blood, and they told me the more I talk to people I'm close with the more vulnerable I become. And being vulnerable is good, I guess. For healing and shit. Maybe it'll help you heal, too."

Will's raw anger stage had long since passed. Inside, he'd already been reduced to a black hole, though on the outside he was twenty pounds fatter in fast food weight. He couldn't remember the last home-cooked meal he'd enjoyed, but he remembered the last meal she'd cooked. Chicken parmesan with green beans and mashed potatoes. She hated mashed potatoes, but he'd insisted. Will also remembered -- he couldn't forget -- how in the mornings, before he left to work, she'd always leave him two pieces of toast. The idea of having toast now was unfathomable. He remembered how on Sunday mornings, before church, Julie would sometimes whip him up scrambled eggs and bacon. They hardly missed Sunday Mass, but after she died, Will stopped going. He couldn't manage seeing other people live their happy little lives, and he definitely couldn't be around babies. The idea of starting his own family was like a fairy tale now. He could no longer listen to Father O'Reilly, with his salt-and-pepper hair and thick-framed Ray-Ban glasses. He couldn't stand to listen to another word about Jesus' love for humanity, about anything unless he goddamn felt like it.

At the office, Will became a bigger workhorse. He'd used his risk management degree to work his way up in auto insurance, save good money and start his own business, WillCo. He managed a small team. He intended to keep the business growing, even with Julie gone -- especially with her gone.

Once the life of the party at work, Will was cold now. Distant. After Julie died, his team had bought him a bouquet of flowers and signed a card for him. Even JoAnna Vernon, the tall, slender brunette, had offered to stay with Will at his home, but he said no. He shut everyone down. He locked himself in his office, and at home. Now that Will no longer had a fiancée to go home to and to love and to make love to, it was just him. He'd fully grasped what that meant until he was numb, reduced to a stub, a black hole. Nothing in, nothing out.

Will was not, however, above getting irritated. His mother called him frequently. He answered sparingly, which worried her. She'd already had enough to worry about with Steve.

"Just get it off your chest, Steve," Will snapped.

Steve's lips started to move, and that's when Will noticed a long hair sticking out on Steve's otherwise freshly shaven upper lip -- a hair that curled into his mouth.

Steve talked about the night of the accident, how nothing like that had ever happened before, how Julie -- who'd been studying for the bar exam -- told him to stay in after he finished his last beer. Steve acknowledged how goddamn stubborn he was, how motherfucking selfless she was to not let her own brother-in-law go out drunk.

What Steve really wanted to get off his chest, though, was how he wished it had been him -- not her -- who had flown into the lamppost.

Julie didn't have her seatbelt on. She was ejected through the windshield. Will would never know how she'd actually tried to put on her seatbelt but couldn't since the buckle was jammed. He'd never gotten around to fixing it.

Julie's skull caved in. Steve came away with only a mild concussion. Somehow, come to find out, he was buckled in.

That night, Will stayed late at the office and went out for drinks afterwards. He'd planned on going home, but JoAnna Vernon convinced him otherwise.

Steve's apology-laced retelling was something Will had already heard before, in his head. So all he actually heard coming out of his brother's mouth now was yadda yadda yadda.

There were a few details Steve left out.

From the time Steve first met Julie at a Valdez family barbecue, back when he was still in high school, he'd enjoyed the eyes he thought she'd given him. Steve was happy-go-lucky, more so than Will. When he'd crack a good joke in front of Julie, she'd touch the sides of his arms gently, and he'd tap her waist, strum her as if she was his guitar.

Will had picked up on this one time. When he brought it up to Julie, she told him to knock it off, that obviously, she was not that kind of girl.

* * *

Steve enjoyed attention from women the same way he enjoyed beer -- one sip and he wanted the whole thing.

He first tasted beer when he was six years old. His father, after getting home from work late one night, called him and Will to join him on the sofa. He showed the boys his twenty-four ounce can of Schlitz.

"A little sip won't hurt nobody," their father had said.

Will sipped, made a sour face. Steve sipped, licked his lips.

The night of Steve's twenty-first birthday, he was charged for public intoxication. He spent the night in jail, and the next day, Will picked him up.

"What the hell's the matter with you?" Will said.

Steve didn't acknowledge the question. He kept his eyes on the road.

"Hello?"

"What?"

Will drove for another minute before engaging again.

"Mom's worried about you, dude. You want to know what she said?"

"Naw."

"Well I'm going to tell you anyway. She said maybe we're still cursed. She said she thought it was over after Dad left, but now she's not so sure anymore. She's scared for you, dude. She's really scared."

Steve stayed quiet, clenched his fists.

"You going to keep this shit up?" Will said.

"Don't you just ever shut the fuck up?"

"What'd you just say me to me?"

Steve yawned. Will couldn't believe the diss.

"All right, Steve," he said. "See if I help bail your ass out next time."

"Don't worry, bro, Ma will," Steve said.

A year later, Steve was hired at the post office. He wasn't sure how, but to have an honest, government job at age twenty-two was pretty damn cool, he thought. An accomplishment.

He delivered mail for six years. Then, after a week of showing up late, he was fired. It was the hangovers after the breakup with Beckah. Steve had dated Beckah for a year and a half, his first real girlfriend. She wore black fishnet stockings, had a tattoo sleeve of a green and red dragon and smacked her Juicy Fruit gum proudly. What Steve enjoyed best about Beckah was the sex; what Beckah enjoyed best about Steve were the free meals. One day without explaining herself, Beckah left Steve. She moved in with another guy. At first Steve acted like he didn't give a shit, but when he realized he actually did, he turned to old faithful. After three days of showing up late, it didn't help Steve's case that his supervisor, Maureen, a middle-aged woman who'd been stomped on by drugged-up men most of her life, never bothered to ask him if something was wrong. She needed a reason to fire Steve, and she got one. Case closed.

No job, no girlfriend, and rent due that'd gobble up his last paycheck, Steve had to text Will. Julie responded to him, assuring him that they'd help him land back on his feet, no problem.

When Will told Steve over the phone that the condition through which he could stay with them was that he quit drinking until he found a job, Steve accepted begrudgingly. Getting a job wouldn't be a problem, he thought; going cold turkey would. Steve really didn't want to live with his brother, follow his rules, but at this juncture in his life, he didn't have much choice.

But there was Julie.

Bumming around his brother's house while he was away at work, Steve couldn't help but keep track of Julie's whereabouts, her movements -- watching her ass bounce in her yoga pants. He had to look. One day, while Julie was in the kitchen making a pot of coffee for a long study session, Steve went to grab a glass of water. When his hand brushed her butt, he didn't say a word, just waited. To his relief, she said nothing as well. She gave him eyes.

Some seeds need just a little bit of watering, Steve thought.

A week later, on an evening when Will was working late, Steve and Julie made out on the sofa. She grabbed him there. He lifted her and carried her to the bathroom and propped her on the countertop. He stripped off her shirt, then her pants. She stopped him. She said she was so sorry and then ran off to her bedroom and slammed the door.

Steve stood there, recalling his philosophy about the seeds. How some needed just a little more watering than others. He smirked.

* * *

As the brothers sat on the cliff's edge, their shirts drenched in sweat, Steve's heart pounded. He felt it in his Adam's apple.

"Look, bro," he said, "what I'm trying to say is ... I'm sorry about Julie. I'm sorry about everything."

There it was. Hearing her name out of his mouth jolted Will more than expected.

Steve felt outside his body.

Will heard a flock of birds screaming in the distance.

"Don't apologize," Will said.

"I have to."

Seeing the entire city from a distance gyrate like a watery worm was a peculiar experience for Will. The blistering heat overstimulated him.

He looked below the cliff's edge, then back up at his brother. He almost felt sorry for him.

"Remember the time in Corpus when Dad took us to Tío Richard's and Tío Richard gave us the Mexican Cokes? The ones in the bottle?" Steve asked.

"Yeah."

"I picked some up on the way over here. Want one?"

"You know, that sounds like a great idea," Will answered.

"OK, lemme go grab 'em."

Will needed a quick break from all this, even if just for a minute.

"No, I'll go get them," he said.

"I got it, bro."

"No."

Steve tried reading his big brother's face, but couldn't. He said, "All right," then handed Will his keys.

"They're in the back of the truck, in the cooler," Steve said.

"Cool."

Will walked slowly to Steve's truck. He counted his steps -- twenty-three.

He hopped in the bed and admired the aluminum cooler shining in the sunlight. He opened it and plunged his hand into the ice.

"Goddamn," he muttered.

He turned toward his brother, who seemed to be sitting on the cliff's edge serenely, motionless, like a Buddha.

Will bent down to close the cooler and glanced inside the back window of the truck.

The knot in his stomach grew as big as a basketball. It wasn't a knot so much as a churning of his guts.

Will couldn't take his eyes off the three silver beer cans by the gas pedal, crushed from the middle. Empty. Schlitz cans from the look of it, the same kind he used to find on his kitchen table in the morning when Steve still lived with them.

"Here you go," Will said, handing an opened glass bottle of Coke to his little brother.

Still seated, Steve grabbed the Coke and smiled.

"Thanks," he said.

Will, standing behind Steve, took a hearty swig of Coke and thought about the polar bears in the commercials, about how happy and stupid they looked.

"You gonna sit?" Steve asked.

The gyrating worm of the blue horizon. Will considered how even the biggest things appear as Lego blocks if you stood far enough.

For a second, he saw a beautiful woman in the trees. She waved at him, as if to say, "Come on down here."

"Hello?"

To Steve, Will seemed as though he were deep in prayer, but he knew he wasn't.

Steve could no longer talk. He couldn't move. For the first time since they'd sat down, he realized how close to down there he was.

He'd never believed in curses or in any of that Mexican crap grandmothers spew. But now he did, all of it. Every last story.

Will placed both his hands on Steve's shoulders. Steve felt the anger in his brother's fingers as they dug into his clavicles. His legs shook uncontrollably. His body too.

Then Will was beside him, seated.

Breathless -- indebted -- Steve hugged his brother, hugged him hard. He cried.

"What's wrong with you?" Will asked.

Steve was unable to respond. The hard back-slap had startled him, shut him up, inched his body forward. Will kept his hand smack dab in the middle of his wet back.

Peering into Steve's wide wet eyes, the almost-gone look behind his pupils, Will felt for the first time in weeks, months, that he was in control. This is how it's going to be, he thought. It's only the beginning.

He lowered his hand from his little brother's back and grabbed his Coke, took another big swig, and let out a satisfied sigh. The burn in his throat felt good.






Article © Alex Z. Salinas. All rights reserved.
Published on 2019-09-30
Image(s) are public domain.
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