Hank has angry eyes again. And angry claps. The angry claps mostly come when I’m speaking loudly, but also if I’m speaking quietly. When I laugh, they are at their most aggressive. Imagine a hostile opposite to applause. Imagine that you are on stage, and the audience disapproves of you so intensely that they’d like to herd you out of the building, or in my case, back up the stairs.
I moved into Hank’s house, into the attic apartment, when I was thirty years old, when the life I had tried to live across the country wasn’t working out. I’d wanted something different for myself at thirty—I’d imagined coming back to Washington state because my success was becoming unwieldy and I needed to share it with my friends and family. But the real reasons I came back were simpler, more humble: My parents were getting older. I missed the geography, the dark woods and nests of sword fern, the smell of skunk cabbage and rain. And my closest friends, like Hank’s parents, had children I didn’t know, who didn’t know me. When I did come home, in the days before the move, and saw all those quickly growing children at Thanksgiving or Christmas, their lack of recognition was a concrete measure of the distance I’d put between my old and new lives. I held a tightly-wrapped infant Hank three years ago, and then I handed him back to his parents, and flew two thousand miles away. I’d chosen something else, somewhere else, other people, and the lives of the people I loved from afar went on without me.
Hank feels inversely proportionate about my laugh and about superheroes. He has several superhero suits, and he has taught me about many of the mysteries and perplexities of this elite coterie. Superman has a talent for ventriloquism, Hank informs me. Wolverine’s bones were replaced with a metal alloy called adamantium by the Canadian government, he says. He reminds me of a guy who lived on my freshman college dorm hall. “Which superpower do you prefer—increasing your vertical leap by six inches, or being able to breathe bathwater?” the guy would ask, and laugh and laugh, and then wander off toward the dining hall.
Hank likes to wear a form-fitting superhero suit and look at himself in the mirror, admiring the interesting cleavage that the muscle graphics make. “I have boobs,” he announces, and laughs, a lot like that guy from Dascomb Hall. “I have boobs like Mommy!”
“And like me,” I offer helpfully.
“You don’t have boobs!” he says, and laughs full-throatedly at the idea.
Once in a while, I take Hank for a few hours or the day. In those times, I think of myself as the James Belushi to his Curly Sue—I imagine us like a couple of renegades out to cause trouble, to have devil-may-care adventures. We spend one afternoon pretending to put out imaginary fires with a hose made from the sleeve of my sweater. Another day, we go to a local Asian grocery, and I lose him in the bags of rice. Afterward, I take him through the drive-through of a McDonald’s. “What do you want?” I ask him.
“I want brown chicken,” he says.
If I were a rube, I would order him chicken, but I’ve been around this block before. Hank has a private labeling system of his own design that requires an insider status, a power to divine the essential meaning of things, which I don’t have. According to the private system, pork loin is “special ham.” Yogurt is “breakfast ice cream,” and roasted sweet potatoes are “round French fries.” “Brown chicken” is anyone’s guess.
“Can you look at the menu and point to the brown chicken?” I ask, but it is useless; the menu is written in tiny lettering like ancient runes, and besides, he is three years old, and can’t read.
“Brown chicken,” he says, shaking his head at me gravely, and then, when I still look blank and no brown chicken is in sight, he says it again, in a kind of intensifying wail.
I decide that “brown chicken” is probably hamburger. A chicken sandwich, maybe. I throw in some chicken nuggets and a McRib. I scan the menu and suddenly everything seems possible. I spend thirty dollars at McDonalds. Back home, Hank contentedly selects the chicken nuggets—the answer was obvious—and I let him watch clips of late seventies Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman while I sit beside him in a leaf fall of fast food wrappers.
|Megan with Baby Hank|
Sometimes, I think that Hank is the comeuppance my parents always promised was coming with my little brother, whom I bullied tirelessly. My brother, whom I made pee on an electric fence, and eat the occasional bowl of dog food. Sometimes, I would wear an old torn blanket like a beggar’s cloak and shout, “Alms for the poor!,” banging a tin cup against the side of our bunk bed until he gave me his penny allowance. We’re frenemies, Hank and I. Sometimes, when he catches my eye across the room and gives me his mean mug—what my grandmother would call the “skinny-eyed look”—I feel weirdly exhilarated, like someone has caught me in something. Like he knows as much as I do that I should be working harder at my life. The exhilaration is partly identification. When I floated my brother against his will on a makeshift, leaking raft onto the creek on our rural land, I knew the particular pleasure of wielding power, of stretching the small allotment I’d been given to control. Of making it encompass, even momentarily, someone else.
Because it is so hard won, I steal moments from Hank. On a night when he is tired and I feel uncertain that I will ever find my way as a writer, as a teacher, I tell him, “Choose every book you want to read, and stack them in one big pile.” We read for hours, and I know it’s just as much—more—for me, than it is for him. Hank has grandparents, and aunts, and uncles, and an entire chosen family of people close to him, a full dance card of people who have been in his life since he was born. I have been given this chance, I think, to come back—to arrive in the cold, dark fall in a 1996 Grand Marquis packed tight with everything I own, and to become, even temporarily, part of his family. Hank’s parents are the kind of friends I hope to be—the kind who can save your life and never consider it a favor that needs returning. In those moments, as I work my way through twenty-seven books, seeking the same kind of comfort that I did when I was small, it occurs to me that Hank is already learning that kind of favor. He is letting me earn my way back. “You’ll read four more books,” he says. “And then, you’ll be quiet.”
I make him a secret library in my room, and this is where we make our tentative peace. I know the power of secrets, and of surprises, and of books. It’s happened slowly, in the year I’ve been here. Sometimes, when he wanders upstairs and we read from the secret library, it seems like we’re more friends than frenemies, like his dubious squint is just the slightest bit affectionate. “I think we should read another,” he says, and we lean together in my warm attic, and it feels like we’re giving each other something, even if I can’t articulate what it is yet.
I finish the book and he hits me in the chest. “That hurt,” I say. “That hurt my body.” He laughs, but then he leans back against me, and we start another book, and I think about how much I want to know him, for him to know me. You have to earn things, is what I’m learning, and this seems like as good a start as any.
Megan Kruse is a fiction and creative nonfiction writer from northern Washington. She studied creative writing at Oberlin College and earned her MFA at the University of Montana. Her writing has appeared in Narrative, The Sun, Witness, Wigleaf, Portland Queer: Tales from the Rose City, and the Portland Noir anthology from Akashic Books, among others. Her short story “Dollywood” was one of 100 Other Distinguished Stories in Best American Short Stories 2011. She is at work on a novel titled Call Me Home, as well as a collection of essays about uncertainty and empty places. Find her at www.megannicolekruse.com.
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