Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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My brother is weird. I never know what he’s going to do next. Like the time he decides around three o’clock on an August afternoon that he’s going to climb the Franklin Mountains. The Franklin Mountains cut through El Paso where we live but they’re real big, part of the Rocky Mountains. He was eight when he did that. My dad had to send the police out to look for him that night. They found him in a canyon clutching his leg where a century plant had stabbed it. When he was nine he built wings out of wood, covered them with newspaper, and was about to jump off the roof when ma walked out the back door. When he was ten I told him to quit swinging so crazily in this hammock we’d hung from the rafters in the garage. That made him mad so he swung harder. “You’re going to fall and break your head open,” I shouted.
“No, I ain’t. No, I ain’t,” he shouted back.
Guess what happened?
No, he didn’t break his head open. Just after he said, “No, I ain’t,” he fell and broke his collar bone.
But the thing he did when he was five I’ll never forget. When he was five he was fat and stocky, not skinny like now. He wore big thick glasses and had his blonde hair cut in a crew cut. God, he was stubborn. Dad said he’d be a lawyer when he grew up.
Well, I’d gone on a trip — Danny was too young but I was eight — with the Cub Scouts, camping outside Taos, New Mexico at a place called Rio Grande Gorge. The Rio Grande cut through this valley and there were huge rocks shooting up on both sides what seemed like a thousand feet. Huge rock walls. A bunch of us decided we’d scale to the top one morning after cleaning up the dishes from breakfast. It was a great, sunny, deep blue sky day in July and not yet too hot.
Well, we’re working our way up, about six of us, from ledge to ledge, rock to rock, crevice to crevice. We’re about half way up when all of a sudden my foot slips on some loose rock. I lose my balance and start to fall. Things get dizzy but I reach out and get my fingers on this tiny ledge. My left foot flops around looking for a place to hold on to while I’m hanging there. My fingers are killing me and I start to sweat. I’m breathing hard and getting cold when all of a sudden I realize, hey, this could be it. I could fall a hundred feet onto rock and that would be it. Dead. My bones busted up. Then my foot finds this tiny rock outcrop and I’m saved.
So that does me in. I don’t give a hoot about being one of the guys or proving how big I am by climbing to the top. I start down. I’ve realized something. I’ve realized what everybody knows but for some reason just doesn’t let sink in. I’m going to die. I’m really going to die. It almost happened and it could happen any time. I’ve got no magic charms to protect me. I’m just as likely to die as the next guy. I am not special. I AM GOING TO DIE.
I think about that a lot during the campout and on the way back to El Paso. Everybody’s bored as we ride along in the bus in the dark, passing by desert, desert, desert and all those little New Mexico towns with the funny names you can’t remember. But I’m quiet, I’m not cutting up like everybody else. I’m thinking and thinking and everything seems important and special. The windows on the bus seem special. The stupid seats seem special. All the guys seem special. Even the son of a bitch scoutmaster we have seems special. I take a lot of deep breaths. I am so glad to be alive.
Well, we get back to El Paso late Sunday. The next day I, of course, want to tell Danny about what happened. We are close and I always tell my little brother everything. So after breakfast, he’s in the living room, and before he leaves to play with one of the Davenport boys, I pull him over and say, “Listen, man, have I got something important to tell you.” He looks up at me with his big blue eyes through his thick glasses.
So I tell him the whole story, bit by bit, from beginning to end, skipping nothing. When I get to the end I say to him, “And that’s what I learned, Danny. We all die. There’s no escaping. I’m going to die. You’re going to die.” I point my finger at him and touch him on the chest.
Danny frowns at me through his thick glasses. He makes his lips into a straight line and he clenches his little fists. I can tell his mind is really ticking. He’s silent a long time.
“No, I ain’t,” he says finally.
“Yes, you are,” I repeat.
“No, I ain’t,” he says again, and — blam! — suddenly he’s punched me in the stomach. He hits me one, two, three times but he can’t really hurt me so I start laughing and roll over onto the floor.
“Liar, liar, liar,” he shouts.
He picks up off the coffeetable a pot with a plant in it and raises it over his head to hit me. I get worried and give him a stern look but the pot comes down and I see death again and barely get out of the way in time. Danny starts kicking at me then, calling me “liar, liar, liar.” I get up and he tears out the front door. I think, God, the kid’s really flipped out this time, this could get me in real trouble. What if he runs in front of a car or something? I dash out after him even though I’m pretty pissed and would rather leave the little monster alone.
Well, I get outside and there’s Danny in our front yard. He’s banging his little crew cut blond head against a tree. He’s really smacking his head, and he’s still shouting “liar, liar, liar.” God, five-year-olds, I think.
I come up to him and say, “Danny, Danny, cool down, cool down. Don’t you know I made it up? I made it up! I was just kidding.”
He stops banging his head. His little face is all red and his eyes are full of tears.
“Are you sure?” he says.
“Sure I’m sure,” I say. “You know how I’m always kidding you. Ha, ha. Some joke, huh?”
He walks away from me back toward the house. He’s not saying anything but when he gets to the screen door he mumbles, “not very funny,” and goes in.