The Good, Good Men
Theo had come all the way from New York with no luggage. From the parking lot Miles watched him spring from the train and weave past the other travelers, sidestepping their children and suitcases with practiced finesse, first of anyone to make it across the steaming platform. His hair was shaved close on the sides, one thick strip left to grow skyward from the crown of his head. In his dark, lean clothing, hands shoved deep in his pockets, he was a long streak of black against the brightly colored crowd. He alone had reached their father’s full height.
He made no eye contact with Miles as he strode to the car and yanked at the door handle. Still didn’t, as he folded himself in half and dropped heavily into the passenger seat, releasing a long breath as he did so. “Fucking hot,” he said, pulling the door shut.
Miles threw the car into drive and steered out of the pickup line, out of the knot of station traffic. “Summertime,” he said by way of assent.
These words, the first the brothers had spoken aloud to each other in over a year, hung in the air between them until the car reached the mouth of the highway. Their mother, Lee, had finally moved back out to the suburbs, to the end house in a single-family neighborhood Miles had seen often from the road, all crisscrossed with telephone wires. He was grateful for its proximity, only a four-mile drive from the train station. Last time around, searching for her dumpy apartment deep in the District, he and Theo had lost precious time to gridlock and confounding one-way streets and been beaten there by their sisters, turning the whole operation to chaos. A mess of shifted allegiances and hand-wringing, tears, hysteria. Later, in the relative quiet of Miles’s living room, Theo had complained of his ears ringing.
“No bag, nothing?” asked Miles now, nodding down toward Theo’s empty hands. “We need to stop for a toothbrush?”
“No,” said Theo. “I’m good. I’m out tonight, right after Safeway.”
Miles thought of Lauren back at home, washing the guest linens and googling vegan dinner recipes since morning. “Okay,” he said. “Quick trip, though.”
“Just to keep it simple,” said Theo. “We dragged it out last time. A task like that always expands to fill whatever time you allocate for it. You know? We gave it two days, and it took two days. We were inefficient.” He reached for the dashboard and gave the AC knob a hard crank, calling up a blast of chilled air. “This time, two hours. We’ll give it two hours, and we’ll get it done in two hours.”
Miles suppressed a shiver. Stealing a glance at his brother’s outstretched arm, he saw an arc of freshly inked letters at the bicep, disappearing beneath a fitted sleeve. Lauren, who kept aggressive Facebook surveillance of all her in-laws, had kept Miles apprised of each of Theo’s new tattoos for years, undeterred by his disinterest. Only this last had caught Miles’s attention.
“Bad stakeholder analysis, is what it was,” Theo was muttering. “Last time, I mean.”
“What’s the new tattoo?” asked Miles. “The words on your arm?”
Theo blinked at the graceless transition, then obligingly pushed up his sleeve. “Got it in Los Angeles, on a work trip. A girl I was with talked me into it. I had been thinking about this one for years.” He traced his finger around the lettered circle, four words rendered to look like they’d been scrawled on by hand in a familiar chicken scratch. “Miles, Thelonious, Mariolive, Caprice. For us, obviously.”
“But where did you get Daddy’s handwriting to show the tattoo artist?”
Theo let the sleeve drop and folded his arms across his chest. “From a check he sent to the old house for us, with our names in the memo line. I found it in a stack of Lee’s work papers with a bunch of other ones and took it when I went to New York. It was in my wallet when I went on the Los Angeles trip.”
Miles felt a swell of heat despite the frigid air. “You took a check from her and never gave it back?”
“Did you not hear me? It was with a bunch of other ones, and it was about eight years old. All the checks were years and years old, some of them reissues of older ones—he would write that in the memo line. He would send them, and she would put them someplace idiotic like tucked in the finished crossword puzzles or a pile of old magazines. And then I guess lose them, so he had to write new ones. She was always doing that kind of shit with checks. I found this one, and the others, all mixed in with the girls’ old coloring books. I took one and left the others there for her to find never. Is that okay with you?”
Theo’s posture, now, was rigid, his face turned squarely in the directly of Miles’s. Miles took his eyes off the road long enough to stare back; but like a traveler gone too long from his hometown, forgetting its habits and idioms, he had lost his fluency in the quirks of his brother’s face. At one time he had been able to tell, from the slightest twitch of an eyelid, that Theo had been teased past his threshold and was about to burst into tears; to hear an impending temper tantrum in the sharpness of his inhale. All of that years ago, when any impulse would buzz between them like a current, felt by one brother even before the other acted on it; when a germ passed to either would invade them both in the blink of an eye. A faraway, definitively ended time. The composition of Theo’s face was the same as always, brooding features assembled slickly under a strong brow. But now it was like their father’s face in the pictures: impassive, all traces of thought as strange and unreadable as hieroglyphics.
Lee had a new man, again, this one a fellow patron at the karaoke bar where she’d been throwing away money every week for months. It was known that he mixed good homemade cocktails and spoke a little French, which was probably what had done her in, because he wasn’t particularly good-looking and didn’t seem like anyone’s genius. He had a dog as big as a wolf, supposedly, and for some reason wore too much purple and a signet ring on his little finger.
Miles’s spotty intel had come from Mariolive and Caprice who, working innocently but in tandem, were only a bit less ineffective than was either of them separately. Lauren, for her expert stalking efforts, couldn’t find even a single Facebook reference to supplement what little was known about her mother-in-law’s new relationship. It was not known where the new man came from, what he did for a living, or what wives and children lay crumbled in his wake. Nor what in God’s name he was doing making regular appearances at karaoke bars, if not trolling for naïves like Lee.
But without question he had established himself as a regular at Lee’s new house out in the suburbs, as evidenced by his car’s presence there on each of four spot checks Miles had
conducted upon receipt of the intelligence. It was there on a Sunday afternoon, a black sedan parked casually in the carport behind Lee’s dented Ford Explorer. There again the following Thursday as Miles inched homeward past the wire-crossed neighborhood in rush-hour traffic. There on a Friday after dark, the lights on in the little house behind it, a hint of movement within. And then, confirming Miles’s nauseated suspicions, there again the next morning at sunup, the house still and silent.
Mariolive had said, At least this one has a car. Which was more than could be said of certain previous ones, like the one who’d needed Lee to drive him up to Philadelphia once a week to try to see his estranged son. Or the one who’d put the dents in the Ford Explorer, driving down 95 in the dark after cocktails.
But still: A grown man, well past any definition of middle age, living unashamedly off a woman with air between her ears. Who lived by the word of her daily horoscope and always kept a tambourine handy to punctuate moments of spontaneous group laughter.
And also: A karaoke bar. An unforgivable fall from grace into the soulless and vulgar. Lee had met their father at a jazz lounge that no longer existed, a place Miles had long imagined as dark and deliciously moody like the man himself, with threads of light piano melody curling through the air between sets. He was the MacHale third of the regular Tuesday-night trio Somebody, Somebody, & MacHale (Miles thought he would never forgive Lee for this offense alone, her willful forgetting of the groups’s full name, which no amount of internet searching could recover), the long-fingered bassist who looked a little like Gil Scott Heron and stood almost as tall as his instrument. MacHale never talked between sets, but he had a smile like a swallow of top-shelf whisky. She had learned from him about melody and improvisation, about modality, how bebop could lift you, how the blues could crush you.
From that she had found her way, albeit over some thirty-five years, into the drunken sump of some suburban karaoke bar. A place where by very expectation the music was shit.
Mariolive estimated she’d been hearing consistent mentions of Mister Signet Ring for two months. Caprice, marginally more reliable in temporal matters, thought it had been four. In his email to Theo, Miles had taken liberties: Bro. Hope you are well. Yet another motherfucker living up in Lee’s house for the past six months. You have some time to go to Safeway?
Theo, perpetually glued to his devices for work purposes, had written back within a minute: I’ll make time. When?
He was explaining again about the stakeholder grid. “It’s about maximizing your tools to push your agenda forward,” he said, drawing squares in the air with his long fingers. “You look for the intersection of interest and influence—the people who want what you want and have some power toward achieving it—and you mobilize them. High interest, high influence: That’s your first quadrant. That’s who need on your side. They can help you mobilize the folks in the other quadrants. As long as you keep your first quadrant happy, you’ll always have some muscle behind your agenda.”
“Got it,” said Miles.
“My mistake last time,” said Theo, “was thinking the girls were in the first quadrant. I thought they were with us and that I could use them that way.”
“Low interest, high influence. Not actually on the same page as us, not actually ready to go to goddamn Safeway, but influential. You know? Noisy. They have Lee’s ear, she listens to
them, wrong as they are. They’re third quadrant. You keep third quadrant as far away from the task as possible, because otherwise they’ll destroy it.”
“Which is why, this time, no girls.”
This had been their mistake the last time: inviting the girls. Mariolive and Caprice were a storm of emotion, almost as changeable and ridiculous as their mother. The last time, things coming to light fisticuffs between Theo and the squatter who had infiltrated Lee’s shoebox apartment in the District, both girls had simultaneously burst into hysterical tears. No, Theo, stop, they wailed, each one clutching one of Lee’s shaking hands. It’s fine, it’s fine, just let him stay. When only days earlier, they’d agreed that the non-rent-paying leech of a boyfriend needed to be escorted out of the too-small apartment. When only minutes earlier, they’d been helping Miles gather the boyfriend’s belonging’s—tattered books, crusted-over cookware—and toss them unscrupulously into the cardboard boxes brought for this purpose. Mariolive had thrown herself in front of the boxes, her thick black braid darting from side to side with each shake of her head. Let him stay with Mommy. Which was why it had taken a total of two days, two trips back to the apartment, two separate escalations of physical contact, to get the lowlife to leave, believably for good.
The time before that: uneventful. The brothers working alone, both their sisters away at college, had sent the motherfucker packing for Philadelphia within twenty minutes of focused intimidation. Then, as now, Theo had been wearing head-to-toe black, and incidentally Miles had too (he had come straight from coaching football practice), and to the infiltrator they had appeared a powerful and unified posse; the infiltrator had actually cowered—a foot shorter than Theo, who had only just reached his full MacHale height at that point—and promised he would never again take advantage of Lee’s generosity. Lee herself, crying and wringing her hands in the corner of the room, had been easy to ignore; each brother had a lifetime’s practice.
MacHale’s letter to Miles confirmed Lee’s memory of their meeting at the long-gone lounge. She had been the girl who turned up to all his gigs in halter dresses she’d made by hand from colorful see-through scarves, swaying her considerable hips at front-and-center as if they’d hired her as a dancer. Perfect rhythm, and stacked as all hell; but too pretty, an almost unbearable distraction. And too silly to be bothered by the fact that everyone—including MacHale, losing notes on his bass—was watching her. He had never seen anything like her, a black girl with hair the color of a well-traveled penny. Sometimes she wore an afro with a shiny turquoise pick in it, even though by now it was the 80s and people weren’t doing that so much in the District anymore, and on those days he couldn’t look at anything but her.
She claimed not to know anything about jazz but somehow could hum all the staple melodies after hearing them once. Often, she brought her own tambourine and accompanied the trio from the lounge floor. The black men and even some of the white ones stared greedily at her, hollering their approval, and even then she didn’t stop, her craving for attention apparently bottomless.
I’m sure you know the feeling, read the letter in MacHale’s faint handwriting. And even at his first read, Miles had known the feeling, having experienced Lee’s oblivious attention-seeking many times over, and having also experienced the misery of watching girls he wanted flirt with other men. By instinct he understood why his father had seen no choice but to set aside his bass one day and leave the lounge with her, thirty minutes before the gig was scheduled to end, or to marry her eight months later and quit the gig altogether. He certainly didn’t need her, the someday mother of his children, swaying and twirling her hips into a future of infinite Tuesday
Belatedly, something dawned on Miles. “Wait,” he said. “So you think I’m inyour first quadrant.”
Theo, thumbing through emails on his phone, grunted by reply. “If this is done in two hours,” he said, “I can get the 7:05 back to New York. There’s a gin-tasting event in Brooklyn that I want to get to by midnight.”
“Gin at midnight is worth rushing back for?”
“Networking. There’s these guys who’ll be there that I need to maximize facetime with to kick off some new stuff I’m doing in the coding space, and if I hit them up while they’re a little bit loose, I might be able to—” He hesitated audibly, looked at his brother, and reconsidered. “Anyway, yeah,” he concluded finally. “I definitely want to get back for that.”
Miles’s hand twitched toward the phone in his pocket but instead tightened around the steering wheel. Lauren called this, the type of work people like Theo did in places like Brooklyn, which no amount of description could clarify to outsiders, alternawork. Including in this
category basically everything less tactile and less demanding than working with middle-school students, which they both did for a living. He would tell her later, after the day’s work was done, about Theo’s burning desire to get back to Brooklyn for gin at midnight, ostensibly for work-related reasons, and she would laugh so hard she lost her balance, as she often did, steadying herself against his arm.
“Unlike Lee,” Theo continued, “I can’t leave money on the table. I think about those checks she never cashed, and I just—man.” He whistled, a low, pensive sound.
Miles sensed, in the shifts of Theo’s upper body, that some familiar, troubled presence had joined them in the car. The mishandling of money had always offended Theo deeply; as a boy, he’d been brought to tears many times by Lee’s fretful comments about bills. And from amid the high-piled detritus m of the many junky apartments Lee had occupied over the years, Theo had somehow sniffed out, and pilfered, MacHale’s forgotten child-support checks. There was something so pathetic in it that Miles was almost, almost moved to touch his brother’s shoulder and to apologize for it, for all of it, on Lee’s behalf.
For years the brothers had been inseparable everywhere but at school, where they were two grades apart. Living the other two thirds of their lives in symbiotic closeness, Miles the mouthpiece for both of them. From playing like the best of friends to fighting like savages at the drop of a hat, their feet and elbows always in each other’s faces, a constant bodily closeness like nothing Miles would ever experience again. Like a first marriage.
Among other things, MacHale and his wife had argued about this, whether brothers should be together so much, immersing themselves so fully in their two-person games. Lee had discouraged it, having gotten it into her mind that Miles’s engineer’s mind was stifling Theo’s fanciful imagination, or that they were conspiring daily to rearrange the carefully curated array of crystals and candles on her dresser into an unintelligible mess. She wanted them to be apart sometimes, at least long enough for Miles to complete his early homework assignments without Theo’s scribbles winding up all over them. She lived by the importance of occasional aloneness, shutting herself into her bedroom with the crystals for occasional twenty-minute stretches while both boys pawed at the door, indignant.
But in these days, she had left them to their own devices for hours while she worked her impossibly long shifts at the Macy’s makeup counter. While she sorted garments at the consignment shop in Northeast, using her pretty face and her honeyed words to sell them to their second owners. And when she was out the door, her long skirts trailing behind her like plumage, MacHale had gathered both boys, not giving a fuck about their aloneness, and sat them in his practice room to listen while he did his finger warmups, his spider-like scales and arpeggios.
He would play a song or two at a time, then go to fix himself a Sazerac, and then do another few songs, delighting the boys by weaving made-up lyrics about Lee into the classics. Into “I Cover the Waterfront” he worked lines about how Lee left them all home alone too much; “So What” became a song about her big butt and how she wore those skirts to show it off to the men at Macy’s.
MacHale gave the boys little nips of his Sazeracs (nasty, and then gradually less nasty) and told them jokes he’d heard at the clubs where sometimes he still played jazz. He disliked television but every so often let them watch episodes of The Cosby Show; he sneaked them out to two Spike Lee movies in the space of a year. He said no to buying them a Nintendo, no and no and no again, each of thirty thousand times they asked; but in the afternoons before his gigs, he let them sit on his back to watch cartoons while he snoozed on the couch.
And, yes, sometimes he sent them into the master bedroom to swap any two of Lee’s crystals, laughing riotously and giving them double high-fives when they returned triumphant.
And then Lee, returning late at night from doing inventory at the consignment shop, was a wildcard who often shattered the consistent peace of daytime. She might be happy and pull out her tambourine, shaking it and her hips when the whole family was laughing. But she might just as readily make a beeline for the stove and wordlessly slam a pan onto it, storm clouds nearly visible over her slick copper-colored bun as she began to stir-fry chicken and peppers. MacHale making the boys laugh by mimicking her cooking posture behind her back with exaggerated flourishes, or pretending to bite the nape of her bare neck like a vampire.
Her high drama, her hysterical turns of phrase. Tell it to the devil, you piece of shit, Miles once heard her scream on the front porch under his bedroom window, the words slicing their way into his dream and waking him up. Her idea of a welcome-home as MacHale returned from one of the many gigs that didn’t end till well past midnight. Ranting with wild passion, her words otherwise shrill and indistinct, while MacHale responded at a blessedly normal volume, his low, moody murmur so comforting that before he knew it Miles had drifted back to sleep. In the morning it was as though nothing had happened; she served the boys their eggs and toast with a wide artificial smile, pretty as ever with a purple ribbon braided into her hair.
At one of these gigs, MacHale broke his left tibia and fibula and landed himself in the hospital for a stay that dragged like a prison sentence, forcing Lee to quit the Macy’s job and surrender several of her shifts at the consignment shop. (Are we going to be poor? Theo asked, practically in tears; and Lee laughed one of her untamed, destabilizing laughs. You thought we were rich before this?).
After that MacHale was on the couch, suffering the television he hated more than anything with his leg stretched stiff before him, eating half of what Lee offered him and rejecting the other half, irritable each time she reminded him he could not drink whisky—not even in cocktail form—on meds as strong as the ones he’d been prescribed.
She was moving more slowly than usual, in the first bloom of visible pregnancy with the girls, and she complained often about her aching back and feet in a way that seemed to Miles to be wildly insensitive, considering. MacHale called the boys to him on a Saturday morning. We need eggs and sausage and green onions, he said, making eye contact first with Miles, then with Theo, looking back and forth between them; nothing he had ever told them had seemed so important. You boys go with Lee to Safeway and you don’t let anything happen to her. Nobody looking funny at her, nothing. You understand?
The boys, with their small chests puffed out, gangly Theo actually walking on tiptoe to appear taller, flanked her dutifully on the walk down to Safeway.
The eggs were found easily, but in an aisle full of loitering men; so Theo stayed behind with Lee while Miles darted ahead and grabbed a carton, checking the eggs inside for cracks as he’d been shown to do. Aren’t you helpful, said Lee.
She left her purse in the aisle with the sausage but didn’t realize it till they’d reached the green onions five aisles over; Miles, able to see in his memory’s eye the maroon felt satchel slung over one of the shelves, deployed Theo back to that aisle, holding Lee in place with produce-related questions till his brother returned triumphant with the purse.
In the checkout line they stood behind Lee, shoulder-to-shoulder between her and the other customers, because she was wearing one of those skirts and it just seemed like the thing to do.
At home, their chests puffed out ever farther, they each received praise and a kiss to the forehead from MacHale, and the pride that hummed between them nearly overpowered Miles’s eight-year-old body.
A week later, wobbling a bit on his new crutches, MacHale took his sons to the toy store and led them straight up to the checkout counter, behind which was kept all the costliest merchandise. With each hand palming one of his sons’ flocked heads, MacHale got the cashier’s attention and nodded up to the top shelf. A—what do you call it, Miles? A Super Nintendo Entertainment System, please. We’ll take one of those for these good, good boys.
Miles had never felt so sure of the perfect alignment between his feelings and Theo’s, one of the last moments in which this would ever occur.
Some weeks after that, MacHale recovered the ability to walk without crutches, and then he was gone, driven away finally by Lee’s whims and her nattering.
Thirteen years later, Miles would break his left tibia and fibula playing college football and find himself bedridden for too long and slowed by a cast for even longer, a total of six idle weeks during which he thought he height scratch out his own eyeballs from boredom. When the cast came off, he would feel as though he’d been fired from a cannon, an unstoppable projectile who ran instead of walking wherever possible; and through this experience, come to understand finally why after surviving all those years with Lee his father nonetheless could not survive a single solitary second with her post-crutches.
And sometime thereafter, when MacHale’s letter, five dense handwritten pages addressed “To my firstborn on his 21st birthday”—only a few weeks late—arrived to confirm the projectile theory, Miles would find that he felt satisfied with this explanation. Not that he had ever felt particularly otherwise.
But in the immediate, MacHale’s abrupt exit ripped a hole in their little house in Northeast, all its inhabitants left at Lee’s mercy. What outcome could MacHale possibly have foreseen but pandemonium? Before anything else, there was Lee’s unilaterally scrapping Ella and Pearl, the very good names MacHale had chosen for his daughters-to-be, replacing them with absurdities she’d dreamed up through God only knew what nutty arithmancy. There was an intolerable glut of visitors, relatives of Lee’s come out of the woodwork to rock the babies and distract Miles and Theo from their grief with questions about school. There were foods served that MacHale never would have tolerated, the delicious basics replaced with eggplant and tofu and loaves of bread with pea-sized seeds in them.
There was the unceremonious discarding of the double bass, which MacHale had said he would come back for but which instead became the property of a disadvantaged District high school’s music department. MacHale’s left-behind shirts and pants, the ones he wore to gigs, a total of forty or so all-black garments, were swept from the master closet and sent to the Salvation Army. MacHale’s Copper Pony went down the toilet and the bottles into the trashcan, leaving the bar cart empty. For weeks they lived as in a sanitarium, every word anyone spoke echoing disconcertingly off the bare walls.
It did not last. Quickly she filled the closet with more clothes of her own; the extra space seemed to give her the feeling that she could now acquire as many impractical garments as she wanted, new things from department stores and all the leftover inventory from the consignment shop. Bolts of cloth found all over the place, wrapped around her body in ridiculous ways but still drawing street whistles that burned her sons’ ears. She began wearing her turquoise afro pick again, sometimes in her hair, sometimes tied to a length of cord and worn above her cleavage as a statement necklace. She spray painted the bar cart magenta and gold and filled the top half with the priciest of each kind of spirit, the bottom with bottles of wine brought to the house by her consignment-shop employees and other friends when they visited.
She collected stacks of papers that nearly reached the ceilings. Recipes torn from health magazines; drawings the girls did that she could not bear to throw away; Miles’s and Theo’s schoolwork, acquired directly from their teachers. When mail arrived bearing MacHale’s handwriting, she quickly spirited it away, envelopes and all, to places unseen, sometimes returning the most boring contents—old invoices, typewritten mail from the city—to her stacks of papers. Lee’s treatment of MacHale’s more personal mail infuriated Miles: Sometimes he’d see the scraps of ripped-up letters in the trashcan and want to explode.
Once she opened a check in front of Miles and laughed aloud as she crumpled it into a ball before his horrified eyes. If I threw this on the ground, it would bounce right through the ceiling, she said with a cackle, dropping it into the pocket of her carnelian skirt.
She played terrible music on the tape player and then on the CD player, and cheered the children through their homework with that imbecilic tambourine. Look what I found! she crowed one day, and to Miles’s horror she pulled from her satchel two sets of hand cymbals to give her daughters. Their small hands barely fit in the straps, but they screamed with happiness anyway, filling the room with noise.
She gave MacHale’s entire vinyl collection to a man she met at work, and for the first time in years Miles and Theo and something to talk about.
She gave Daddy’s records to that guy, said Miles, barging into Theo’s room and finding him there with his head in a textbook. I think they might be dating or something.
Theo lifted his head, looking sick. Oh, that’s nasty, he said.
A silence hung between them. After a time, Miles cleared his throat. Do you ever, he asked carefully, think about that one time when Daddy sent us with her to Safeway?
And then bought us the Nintendo.
Miles had decided immediately upon receipt of MacHale’s one letter to him that he would never tell Theo about it. It went on for five pages and did not once mention MacHale’s younger son, nor either of his daughters. The return address, to which Miles sent multiple overeager replies, had turned over to another renter mere days earlier, with no hints as to where the previous one might have gone. Anyway, the letter itself was more than good enough, even the revelation of seeing MacHale’s quirky handwriting up close an unexpected joy. Whatever unease he had felt seeing it inked on Theo’s arm just now was repaired by knowing its less-than- honorable origins.
Their exit loomed. “Will Lauren and I see you again soon, then?” asked Miles, flicking on his turn signal.
“Don’t know,” said Theo.
Miles thought of Mariolive, who by Lauren’s report was holding onto her shithead college boyfriend even though she should know better by now, all those letters after her name. Maybe they’d be hitting Safeway again soon, for her.
Into the shabby, wire-crossed neighborhood he steered the car. Beside him, Theo was silent but alert and scanning the boxy little houses of Lee’s neighbors, his phone inert in his pocket.
The grass was freshly cut, a touch that struck Miles as the work of a much craftier adversary than all the sloppy past boyfriends. A dog, chained to Lee’s wrought-iron fence and unsurprisingly not wolf-sized, slept under Mister Signet Ring’s black sedan. Its collar was turquoise and spattered with glitter, and seemed to have sprouted a number of multicolored feathers.
They retrieved the cardboard boxes from the trunk and walked shoulder-to-shoulder up the walkway, Theo hunching just the tiniest, barely perceptible bit, which Miles appreciated. A hideous summer foliage wreath hung from the front door, and the faintest four-on-the-floor seemed to pulse through a downstairs window.
Both brothers lifted their fists. Theo dropped his, and Miles knocked.
Lee herself opened the door, a fuchsia scarf tied around her silver-and-copper hair. The synthesized sounds of disco music flooded out into the front yard, rousing the dog. Shades of excitement and then concern passed over her expressive face in an instant. “Boys?”
Behind her, sitting on the couch in veritable purple jeans, newspaper spread out before him, his ringed little finger keeping time against the edge of the newspaper, sat Mister Signet Ring himself, looking at the brothers with only mild curiosity.
“You,” said Theo, maintaining eye contact with the boyfriend as he stepped around his mother, while Miles began the work of containing her in the foyer. “We need to talk to you.”
A few good words with Shannon
PDS: I was drawn to the tender pain of Miles and Theo’s relationship and wondered what import you put on creating complicated love between black male characters? How does building family like this serve your own goals for black representation in literature?
SS: Sibling bonds intrigue me--they are so deep and multilayered, and often so devoid of the pretenses that define all other relationships. I love when a Black person calls me “Sister” on the street or in line at the grocery store; it suggests a shared history, a common understanding that goes beyond our status as strangers. Ideally, we would all work to nurture those bonds with our siblings (genetic and otherwise).
It’s a terrible tragedy when something happens to break the sibling bond, and Black men face so many divisive challenges; they are then judged harshly by a society that often doesn’t take the time to trace the events that shaped or fractured their bonds. Similarly, Black characters in literature are often flattened into tropes; their depth and layers don’t get a fair shake. In this story, I wanted to capture the intensity of the sibling relationship. I wanted to depict a pair of brothers drawing on their shared experience to bridge a growing chasm between them.
BVS: Do you have favorite characters, or do you love (or dislike) them all in the same way?
SS: At the end of the day, I need them all here for the story to work. It’s just like family: Cousin So-and-So may get on everyone’s last nerve--but the minute he doesn’t show up for Thanksgiving dinner, all everyone wants to know is “Where’s Cousin So-and-So?” I love them all, and they all make me furious. But I have a particular soft spot for Theo, who follows Erykah Badu’s advice to pack light--as we all should.
BVS: What black fiction writers do you look to for inspiration and/or what stories could serve as kinfolk (troubled or not) to this one?
SS: I grew up on Toni Morrison and Zadie Smith and will always hold them up high. Recently, I’ve been inspired by the short fiction of Danielle Evans. She has a story, “Boys Go to Jupiter”--read it, trust me--that deals with familiar, troubling subject matter from a shockingly unlikely perspective, and I think it’s just brilliant. As a writer, I aspire to accomplish what she does in that story.
Shannon Sanders graduated from Spelman College and Georgetown University Law Center. Her fiction is forthcoming in Slice Magazine, Juked, and Requited Journal, and has placed in Glimmer Train's Very Short Fiction Award contest. She lives with her husband and son near Washington, DC.