Your brother calls from Florida to ask you to post his bail. Of course he does. It’s been years since you’ve spoken to him, yet here he is, his voice in your ear. “I’m in a bind,” he says, but his tone is precarious, a walker on a rope, and you know immediately that he is underselling his position. You last talked, what, five years ago? Before you moved north for an engineering job. He was unemployed at the time and you had just graduated college. He is seven years older than you. In your line of work you think a lot about change over time, but your age is one difference that never does.
You’re well, by the way. You have a nice apartment in an expensive city, a good job, friends. Is your brother calling because of this wellness you are experiencing? Does he know? You feel a tinge of apprehension. You’ve never been one for secrets but then this is a person you thought you’d cut out of your life, and here he is calling you from a jail in the Florida Panhandle.
You’re surprised by that. Florida. At some point he went home.
“Daniel?” he says. He takes a breath. “Hear me out.”
You listen to him talk and you think he’s going on about laundry. Then you laugh to yourself, but not out loud. Laundering. The line is going in and out. You imagine him in the hallway of a jail, surrounded by monochrome concrete and thick gray brick, effectively buried underground, handcuffed hands holding the shiny black phone to his ear.
So: your blue-collar brother from your blue-collar family has committed white-collar crimes. And here you thought you were the only one to make it out of the proverbial woods. He just can’t stay out of your lane.
You’re sitting at your desk in your apartment, and you look down at your legs while he explains what happened and how he got here and what he needs from you, how it’s so small, he needs such a small thing. Your arm is propped up on the desk, phone pressed to your ear. You can hardly hear what he’s saying, or maybe you’re just not listening. Maybe it’s your turn to ignore. Your jeans are raw. Your shirt is organic. The light in your apartment—your light!—is natural. How much is he asking for? You run your left hand over the surface of your desk. It’s nice wood, this desk.
You can’t remember the last time you were in this position: your older brother asking you for, well, anything. Is this what it felt like to be him when you were growing up together? To be asked for help, for advice. To field questions, desperations, demands. When he was seventeen and you were barely ten, his role was explainer and caretaker. But he never asked for that line of work, and he wasn’t good at it. Every brother makes threats but he was one who meant it, who beat kids at school with his fists until they—fists and kids both—bled. This figure from your memory wielded his experience like a mace. You played with broken toys in your bedroom. You counted bruises on your arms. Fingertips. He taught you a lot about the world.
“I really need your help,” he says.
You didn’t ask for this phone call. You, too, are not very good at this line of work.
What your brother has done is interrupt you. And this interruption, it’s left you wondering about things you don’t normally wonder about. When was the last time you thought about throwing baseballs in the backyard? Fishing in Lake City? Reading Redwall in the car while someone older drove you safely? You’ve never considered the power of interruption, how it can scramble your brain.
You don’t want your story to be one of power, and yet it is. The words you have not spoken are all potential. Your unspoken words are fateful.
An honest question: what do you want from him? You’ve been happy without him in your life. Did he think about that before he called? Or is the idea of your happiness something he can’t wrap his head around? It strikes you that your brother is sharing his unhappiness with you the same way he did when you were just a kid. He’s asking for help, but you know this isn’t all he’s asking for. He’s selfish. Maybe you are, too.
There is something broken, you think, in brothers. Yours is quiet now.
“Can you just answer me?” he says, and you think you hear his voice crack, but after you hang up, you tell yourself it was just the reception.
Chase Burke grew up in Northeast Florida and currently lives there. He has an MFA from the University of Alabama, where he was the Fiction Editor of the Black Warrior Review. His own work appears or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, DIAGRAM, Western Humanities Review, Salt Hill, Sycamore Review, Yemassee, and Electric Literature, among other journals. You can find him at chaseburke.com or on Twitter @cpburkejr.