Dear Brother

by M. Randall O'Wain

Your girlfriend gave Mom a plastic pencil box that held a few of your belongings—a belt buckle, a zippo, two cassettes, string fragments, a glass one-hitter and a photo of you—but I opened it only recently, having carried it around in an egg crate full of letters and photos that I would never consider tossing. Mom had driven down to Memphis from her new home in Bird song, two hours, for your stepdaughter’s birthday. She wanted to watch her open gifts, but your girlfriend did not let Mom inside and so the child tore into the wrapping paper in the passenger’s seat. Your suspicions about another man, though you did not know his face or name, were confirmed when Mom was told later by a mutual friend that he had moved into your house.

I don’t remember being in this photo, the one she sent. I only remember you. There I am, in the shadows. The memory is otherwise familiar. It’s your thirteenth birthday. You’re wearing your favorite shirt, a purple one with Rude Dog on the front, and these sunglasses with green—what are those things called? You know the pieces that go from the lens to ear… We had matching pairs gifted from some fast food restaurant. We never ate out, but I remember the day we got those glasses. A billboard advertised Wendy’s in Mississippi and I realized other cities besides Memphis had these same restaurants. You called me stupid for not already knowing this because we’d eaten at Burger King in Arkansas the summer before when we visited Dad’s parents. It’s funny how much you loved cars—a big Cadillac—but you never wanted to travel. You tried once. I nearly forgot. You drove across country with your dog. It didn’t go well, I remember. You were robbed in Utah. When staying with a friend in Seattle, her housemates mocked your southern accent.

In the photo, you’re holding a red Fender Dad got you and a Crate practice amp is in the background. It must have been before Dad remodeled and Mom put up wallpaper because the dining room walls are rose colored. Dad got us all something big when we turned thirteen and you got this guitar. Years later, in the warehouse you rented across from the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, somebody robbed your place and stole, among other things, this guitar. You cried, I remember. You told me not to tell Dad. We smoked a joint and stared at the Lorraine Motel from your bedroom window. That warehouse was wild. No heat. No furniture. You didn’t even own a refrigerator and you swept the trash into the center of the floor. Once, you threw an all night dance party and fights broke out. You tried to break one up and got jumped. I can’t remember how many individual brawls happened that night, like some story from the Wild West, and I didn’t see you get punched. I must have been trying to make out with Lauren Coldwell. I always tried to make out with Lauren, a Mexican girl with green eyes and a ripped-up Crass t-shirt.

At your wake, they passed a different picture around. Someone wrote The Crew in the border. You are sitting on the roof of the Cadillac you bought from your weed dealer. It had a gold grill, gold rims, and wood grain on the inside. One morning, you woke up to go to work and the car sat on blocks with the grill gone, the rims gone, even the gold hood ornament. In The Crew photo, I’m standing below you with seven others. We’re all making the three letter sign CYC with our fingers like gangsters. CYC: our neighborhood. Cooper Young Crew. The picture was taken at Barrister’s, that back alley club downtown. It must have been ’98—I think His Hero is Gone played that night. You are shirtless. You were always shirtless. You’d just gotten Bugg Life tattooed on your stomach like Tupac had Thug Life on his—later you added a backdrop with a barn and a haystack and a rusted out Rambler. Bugg. Everyone called you that at your funeral. I wished you had a better nickname than Bugg In The Ear, all because you wore a spider earring in high school. Our friends who stood in the backyard at your wake had the same postures as in the photo. They were older. We all were. You were twenty-nine when you died. Does that mean you’ll always be twenty-nine? I had moved away and not many others had ever left Memphis. They wanted everything to be the same. They wanted to recreate The Crew picture around your casket. I refused. I didn’t go inside until the time came to carry you to the hearse. That would have pissed you off, I know. I knew then too, but no matter how many times I tried to cross the threshold into your living room, I always turned back. It was because I wanted to talk to you alone; but was never given the chance. In your backyard, I watched everyone have a good time without you.

I carried you the way we carried our father. Our nephew, Hunter, walked behind me and a few times he stepped on my heels. “Sorry” he’d say. “That’s okay.” I’d say. He was fifteen and strong enough to be your pallbearer. It made him happy. Even though it didn’t. He rode in the limousine with the rest of your friends. “Stay with me,” he said. But he protected me in the end, holding my elbow while I shuddered next to him in the backseat, as if his slight weight might steady me.

I had visited you only a few weeks before, the first time in a couple of years. I brought my wife Mesha and because of your recent colon surgery, we made you brown rice and salmon. You hated the food, but you played nicer than your girlfriend and her daughter who tossed the fish in the trash and ate bologna sandwiches instead. It felt nice, being with you, like we were entering adulthood together.

Do you remember our phone conversation just before your colon surgery? Dad’s death, the deterioration of his body, affected you more because your job as a mechanic, and smoking habit—both weed and Doral menthols—were so similar to his. You told me that if something happened to you that I should throw a party at your wake, none of that sad shit, you said. I agreed, but when the time came, I tried to talk your girlfriend out of it, unable to imagine joy now that it was true. During that conversation, I told you I was scheduled to get a vasectomy the same week of your surgery. I asked you not to tell anyone else because I knew that it would hurt Mom. You told her anyway. When I learned of this, I cared more about not getting a chance to share stories, like, that there was a poster hanging from the ceiling above where I lay: a squirrel holding acorns with caption that read Guard Your Nuts! It’s a detail I know you would have loved, guaranteed to make you snicker, but I could’ve knocked you out with laughter had I told you that after leaving the exam room, doped on pain meds, I’d misheard the nurse, a honey-colored man with gold rings. He handed me a plastic sampler and I thought he said to bring back fifteen samples. I filled the cup with fifteen ejaculations and brought it to the nursing station a few weeks later—Is that what I think it is, the nurse said. What the hell am I supposed to do with all this? It hurt to cum, hurt any time I touched my swollen balls. Embarrassed, wanting the artifact to disappear immediately, I threw the sampler away in a residential trashcan. I can see you now, even though ten years has passed since your heart failed in the middle of the night; I can see your face turn red and the vein grow wide in your forehead; I can see your shoulders hunch forward and your light blue eyes water. I love your laugh.


Ear stems! That’s what the piece is called. You are wearing sunglasses with neon green ear stems. Our hair looks ridiculous. Mine’s a bowl cut. Yours is a mullet. Kentucky Waterfall. Missouri Compromise. It was 1991 after all, and no aspiring metal head would have had any other haircut. Thirteen—the age when ambiguity between soft and heavy metal is defined. One had to choose. Never did a Metallica fan cross over into Mr. Big. Soon after your thirteenth birthday, I ditched Bryan Adams and Poison and watched as you slipped into the realm of Jr. High and heavy metal. Did you notice me hidden in the dark edges of the photo? The younger brother. You were thirteen once and I was ten. I’ve been three years on your heels since birth. Just like in this photo. I remember the time I hid on the roof when I was six because I got my nose busted in a fight and I didn’t want Dad to see that I had lost. You let me lean on your chest until I stopped crying. Blood on my shirt and yours too. You raced a train once and cut it off; once you drove fifty-five miles an hour in reverse down Peabody. With the train, I held my breath and decided that I’d rather die with you but while in reverse we were older. I screamed for you to stop and let me out. You were angry and I walked the rest of the way home. I didn’t trust you. Probably the first time and this hurt you deeply. You were still the older brother, after all. Just like on your thirteenth birthday. Just like in this photo.

I miss joking the most. There was little room for humor after Dad’s death. You felt the need to take his place, and I’d forgotten why leaving home had felt so necessary but, ultimately, I only knew how to navigate life through movement. I don’t run so much anymore, Chris. I finished my undergraduate degree at thirty and went straight to graduate school. I teach now and I write. If our family were still whole, I know, you would’ve resented the success—first person in the extended or immediate family to earn a university degree—but not because of pride; simply, as the younger brother, it broke the rules we’d established about firsts. You were the first to find strong love. You were the first to buy a house, to build a career, to raise a child. You were the first to mature and you were the first to stay home when Dad was ill. You were the first to drive to Bird Song and fix Mom’s water pump, her busted pipes, and her roof. You were my first true friend. Thankfully, you were not the first to die. A father is the first mold, but an older brother is the last.

Can I tell you something else? We built a studio on a piece of land in Southern West Virginia, Mesha and I; we insulated the structure, hung drywall, put down southern yellow pine flooring; built bookshelves, a bar and counter that separates the main room from a little kitchenette. The work, Chris, I loved the work. When I sit down to write every day, I think of you. I think of Dad. I want to see you pull up in a Cadillac, reeking of weed, with grease staining your fingernails. I want to see Dad laugh as he rakes his hair back from his forehead. I accept it now, the absence, but the depths of these losses—the anger, perhaps—is also why I never opened the red pencil box your girlfriend gave Mom on your stepdaughter’s birthday until now. I remember it from our childhood because you’d painted the center black one summer before school started, back when it actually held pencils and markers instead of weed, and after that, I assume, where you tossed random things you didn’t want to lose but had no immediate use for, like a belt buckle, a zippo, a glass one-hitter, and a photo from your thirteenth birthday.

M. RANDAL O’WAIN holds an MFA from Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Currently, he teaches creative writing at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of Superman Dam[n] Fool: family, loss, and coming of age in the working class south (American Lives Series, Bison Books, 2019) and Hallelujah Station and other stories (Autumn House Press, 2020). His essays and short stories have appeared in Oxford AmericanGuernicaThe PinchBoothHotel Amerika (forthcoming), Zone 3 (forthcoming), among others.