NONFICTION | Buck
He smokes Marlboro Reds because they have Marlboro Reds everywhere. In all the countries he’s been to, I doubt he’s ever not found them. I smoke Pall Malls because Kurt Vonnegut smoked Pall Malls and lived into his eighties. He says that’s a dumb reason to pick a brand and I tell him the Marlboro Man died of cancer.
We’re sitting on the front porch and he says “you were adopted.”
“No,” I say, “you’re adopted. Mom told me.”
“You wouldn’t know; you weren’t even born. I remember when you were adopted.”
“You don’t remember that at all. You were four years old.”
He’s only here for the weekend and then he’s going back to his wife in Peru. He won’t come to stay without her and she can’t get a visa, so he’s only here for the weekend. I’m too busy to do much this weekend – I’ve been driving back and forth from campus trying to finish essays and hundreds of pages of reading. He came to see Mom and some friends, not me, but I still have to play the good brother and son. We had a family dinner last night, and tonight we were drinking a few beers before he leaves until God-knows-when.
He’s staying in my old bedroom because he hasn’t been home in four years and doesn’t have a bedroom anymore. When I walked in, he asked me what I thought.
“When I lived here it didn’t smell so much like pot,” I said and he laughed. Then I saw the four joints neatly rolled and compiled on my desk. Once he would have offered me one and I would have taken it. Now I just think he has his joints piled like a nerd, but he think it’s convenient and it is in a way.
When he says something dumb, I ask him if he’s high. He usually is. When I say something dumb, he tells me to get a refund on my education, which usually doesn’t sound like a bad idea.
Mom found out he still smokes pot a few weeks ago. She called me to ask if I knew, mostly to confirm it. A few years ago Dr. Phil taught her that people who try to change the subject instead of giving a direct answer are lying, so I’ve adopted a method that’s more clear but still vaguely accusatory. I drop the tone of my voice or slow my speech at the part of a sentence that’s a lie:
“Yeah Mom, I study (slower voice) every night.”
“No Mom, I have not (lower tone) been drinking this morning.”
“Mom, Buck does not smoke pot.”
She wasn’t satisfied with that, though. She gets worried that his wife might leave him if she finds out he smokes pot, or that Peru’s new Communist president might throw him in the gulag. Our mom is from a Communist country where that thing was supposed to have happened. So I had to explain that I hadn’t seen him do it, even though he used to when he was younger. “I just assumed he quit when he got married. I don’t think you can even smoke pot in Peru.” She didn’t need to know that his wife smokes sometimes too, or that Humala has other things to worry about – Fascists, for instance.
She said he seems high a lot, and I said that was just who he is. “He’s never really been all there.”
We don’t like to worry her, so he also protects her from a lot of my traits, but with a different style. He’s less active in his denials. He just says that he and I don’t talk about anything, which I only use as a last resort. It’s a hell of a thing to say you don’t talk to your brother, even if it’s true.
I don’t know if I have fewer secrets than him or if he just doesn’t know any of mine. He tells me about the war and I’ve got no response. He tells me about the hostel in Argentina and I’ve got no response. Somehow having a paper due just doesn’t seem so pressing sometimes.
He likes this – sitting here and looking at the trees. In Peru, the balcony he smokes off overlooks the city – falling apart, if it was ever really together to begin with. He can see the volcanoes and a little farm that sometimes has crops and sometimes is for grazing.
When I asked him about the country’s problems, about Humala and Fujimori and Shining Path, he got mad but says it’s not his country anyway. But he doesn’t live in his country.
I tried to call Senator Warner to get help with his wife’s visa, but Buck wouldn’t take it. He says it’s because he’s a 'pretty big libertarian.' He sounds like me when I was in middle school. Now I’m for the establishment and he’s the anarchist. It’s like when I listened to metal and he would only listen to rap. Then while he was in Iraq he got into metal, which was when I was giving up on it in favor of socially-conscious rap. Now he only wants to listen to Lupe Fiasco, but when I played Food and Liquor he looked like he didn’t know what it was.
Sometimes he misses things completely. Text messaging, for instance, got big during the war. He came back wondering why no one would call him anymore. Now he designs software, even though he doesn’t seem to care about the free gadgets they send him. When we’re out of things to talk about I ask him about the code he’s working on. I have no idea what any of what he says means.
Once, when I told him I was working on a short story, he got indignant:
“What the fuck is a short story?”
“I mean, it’s like a story, but it’s not that long.”
“Does anyone read those?”
“Well, not really. But they’re still around, so someone must. What, do they not have short code?”
He thinks I don’t respect him because I don’t understand his situation. I think the same about him. We both think we see each other as the high-school fuck-ups we used to be.
When we were younger, Mom wanted him to teach me the things a man should know – how to fix a car or talk to a girl. He would always say “I’m not his dad.” The truth is that there are just things neither of us would ever know. Socrates was supposed to be wise because he knew what he didn’t know, but Socrates is dead so how wise could he have been?
Buck doesn’t have much use for philosophers. He rarely reads novels, but occasionally asks me for suggestions. He wanted to know what makes The Corrections so good or else he wouldn’t read it. The fact that if he didn’t read it he’d have nothing to talk about when he got back didn’t persuade him. Then I told him the plot of The Corrections and he asked if I had anything good.
“Not to be a dick, but you know, a good book.”
I think he’s just got a short attention span. He thinks I’m just boring.
Last week he thought his wife was pregnant. When he called to tell me, I didn’t believe him.
“We went to the doctor. You’re about to be an uncle, E.”
“You’re so full of it, man.”
“I’m about to a father, man. Quit being a dick and congratulate me.”
“Are you naming him after me?”
“No. If it’s a boy we’re naming him Buckley.”
“Well, if you’re not making it up, then congratulations, man. That’s awesome.”
Over the week they had probably told too many people so that when the first test turned out to be a false positive, he had trouble keeping his calm. He didn’t want to talk about it, and he didn’t want to joke about it. Sometimes I try to tell him things that are bothering me so that he’ll open up, but it never works. He’s solution-driven, as psychology says most men are. If I have too much work at school, I should just buckle down and get it done. If I’m having trouble with a girl, I should forget that crazy chick. If he found out yesterday that he’s not having a kid after all, he should have fun trying again. If we can’t tell each other what’s really on our minds, we should convince ourselves that what we talked about was the real problem and everything else was The Bullshit.
At any given time one of us has to be the Screw-Up. It was in the air for a while, when I was working as a janitor and couldn’t get two dimes to jingle in my pocket, and he was living in Buenos Aires with La Ballena. Nobody liked La Ballena. But he married Sandra. Everyone likes Sandra. So now I’m the Screw-Up until I graduate, and then he’ll have a kid, and I’ll go to grad school. Eventually I’ll get a job and his kid will start school, and I’ll probably have my own kid, and by then we’ll have our own family dinners where our kids sneak off to smoke and nod while they talk about us. We’ll give our nephews beer to prove we’re the cool uncle. We’ll dispense bullshit advice that doesn’t really mean anything when you think about it, like “marriage doesn’t change anything, kids do,” which we’ll preface with something like “let me tell you what I’ve learned, just from my own experience.” I might wear Hawaiian shirts. Maybe our kids will try not to be the Screw-Up, or maybe not. Maybe they will and not even know, but let the competition manifest quietly, in smaller contests: who can kick whose ass, who learned more without school, who can make the biggest ass of themselves in public, or who can get Mom the best birthday present. Either way, they won’t acknowledge that it’s happening. And they’ll never consider the consequences of losing because it’s something that neither of them wants to win.
When a person who knows one of us meets the other, the first thing said, without exception, is that he and I could be doppelgangers. We’re told we have the same mannerisms and expressions, too. One of those is to say “So, [obvious fact]. How do you feel about that?” It’s a space-filling phrase. It gauges the opportunity for conversation.
Buck is looking at one of the trees in the front yard when I say to him “So, you’re here for another day. How do you feel about that?”
“It’s nice man, I miss it.” I think he means that he can’t wait to bring his wife. She’s never been to the States. He sounds stressed, like he always does, about the hassle he’s been through in trying to her visa.
“Why don’t you stay another week?”
“I can’t do that.”
“The company already bought your ticket, right? You just have to change the day.”
“No, it’s already hard enough to leave.”
I know, and he knows I know, that he doesn’t mean the airport is tough to navigate or that he doesn’t know how to switch his ticket or that he might get too much stuff to bring back in a carry-on if he stays another week. I don’t think he knows quite why he has to leave so soon. I never knew why he left in the first place. In this instance, it seems to me that maybe he didn’t either.
I lean back and light a new cigarette with the tip of my old one.
Aaron Bruener is an essayist from Richmond, VA. He earned his MFA from University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program. His work has appeared in Bull, Backchannels, and Grasslimb.