It was a fir tree that exacted the toll, its branches extended out uniformly, equally absorbing sunlight and distributing oxygen. It would have made the perfect Christmas tree for some family, except that it, like many of its kin nearby, had been afflicted with the Adelgids. I didn’t know what they were. I’m not sure my dad knew either. But we would never forget them after that day.
A strong March breeze whipped up over the ridge on which we had perched our tents, not far from Clingman’s Dome, with a view of the entire Tennessee Valley. We weren’t at a regular campground. My dad didn’t believe in them. He had grown up in the area and knew the Smokies well.
“Weather’s coming,” my dad said.
“Connor, your jacket is in your bag. Please go and get it,” my mom said zipping up her windbreaker.
My youngest brother peeked out from behind one of the many wood giants around us. “Mommy, we’re playing Blind Man’s Bluff,” Connor, my youngest brother replied. “Michael’s it again.” Michael was always it because he didn’t quite understand the game but understood enough to follow rules. With the uneven ground and Michael’s remedial motor skills, it was inevitable he’d trip over something. He didn’t care though because he was happy to be included. I enjoyed getting the best of him because he was my annoying older brother, but back then, it didn’t happen very often because my parents looked out for him.
“Connor, get your jacket,” my dad insisted.
Connor was discouraged, but I explained that it would be great for him to just stay in his tent. Michael would never be able to touch him and would eventually just fall all over the tent, getting tangled and giving us a good laugh. So, Connor scampered off. Then we heard the thud of the tree branch and the dull echo of wood hitting human skull.
While we were in the hospital, as my mom wept and my dad paced, fists clenched like he was awaiting an arch nemesis to whom he’d immediately deliver a beating, Michael held court with anyone who would listen on the danger of the Balsam Adelgids and what they were doing to forests (all from memory). And I sat, as I always did, an ever-expanding knot in my stomach, tearing the lining of my gut apart. Yet no tears would come. You think it’s hard to listen a child cry? It’s even harder to hear your mom.
* * *
The spring of our country’s bicentennial year I was twelve, with my birthday coming up in July, but there wasn’t much celebrating anymore in my family. With Connor gone, my parents vanished into their own little worlds, leaving me as Michael’s caretaker. It was as if they disowned both of us after the accident, but I don’t think Michael had noticed. For me, it felt like an indefinite punishment, like I’d been endlessly grounded. Every morning, it was my job to get Michael dressed, feed him, and get him to school.
I tried to stay connected to my parents. All my father wanted to do was sit in his den. No more chats like we used to about baseball, about both of our heroes: Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente. He would get up before any of us and sign on his ham radio. I would often wake to hear him. One morning I peered in.
“Heard that G-5-F-W. Nice to catch up. The XYL is calling so must run. Whiskey Four, Delta, Tango, Delta signing off.”
He noticed me at the door.
“Was speaking with Manchester.”
“It’s a town in England. Spoke to Spain a month or so ago,” and he pointed to the wall where he had posted a card with the letters EA4SDL.
“Hank’s still playing this year,” I offered referring to my hero Hank Aaron, “He’s got 745 so far.”
He nodded, and that was it. He turned off the equipment, picked up his briefcase, and tousled my hair as he walked by and down to the garage. Nothing else. Just strangers from other countries. Anything to avoid the world he was living in.
Then I’d see my mom, who appear at her bedroom door, a pair of hazel eyes peering through a small crack.
“Stephen, honey? Would you be a dear and handle Michael today? I’m just so exhausted. Thanks, dear.” Then she’d go back to sleep.
For Michael, the whole situation was lost on him. He didn’t seem to know how to take care of himself and didn’t care, yet he would put his arms through his sleeves once you insisted, all the while reading novels by Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. If I didn’t put food in front of him, sometimes he’d forget to eat, so he generally got corn flakes because that’s all I felt like eating in the morning. When we came home from school, he insisted on having green M&M’s, unless we had Popsicles. He loved Popsicles, more than anything else, but since Mom only bought those during the summer, he ran to the pantry daily looking for the M&Ms. Often, it took all my efforts to stop him from tearing open a new bag.
“We’re out of green ones,” he would say, grabbing a new bag.
“Michael, the brown ones taste the same as the green ones, and the yellow ones. And the orange ones.”
“I like the green ones,” he would state emphatically while turning on his favorite cartoon, Speed Racer.
Did I mention Michael was fifteen? He was still in my grade, so they called him slow. Many years later, they would change that to autistic.
It was on the one-year anniversary of Connor’s death, March 29, 1976, that everything changed. Perhaps it was no surprise that it was the same morning my mom made the announcement.
“I’m taking the painting class they’re offering at the church.” Her hands were clasped over each other as if she had a speech to give. Since the accident, her left eye had a slight twitch, which would cause her to blink and squint more often, a hint that she had yet to find any peace.
“The church,” my dad repeated as if she had just said the f-word.
“The church. It’s a religious iconography class. I think I need it.”
“Except you don’t paint,” my dad replied. He didn’t much care for any endeavor that meant leaving the house.
“That’s why I want to learn. Mary Martin is teaching. It’s Tuesdays and Thursdays. I think I need to do this.”
“Wait, so now I’m stuck feeding Michael his dinner too?” I blurted out. Or I would have said that if I ever protested when things got dumped on me. What came out was, “So we’ll get to go out for dinner?” No one paid any attention.
“Someone has to make my grilled cheese. Stephen doesn’t know how to make my grilled cheese,” Michael spouted. “He’s sloppy and doesn’t even use butter.”
“I do too, retard. I just won’t use cream cheese because it’s gross.”
“That’s how I like it. Mom! Mom? You know how I like it. And it has to be toasted, not grilled on the stove. Electric stoves ruin grilled cheeses. And I want Philadelphia brand cream cheese. Philadelphia… not the other one.”
Anyone who knew the way Michael spoke knew that he would often repeat things several times and often in the same sentence. But Mom wasn’t paying attention; she was already at class, admiring the paintings she had been creating in her head.
School wasn’t any more awful than normal that day. I had been holding my pee since eighth period because the school bully, Ross Cumbersome, who could best be described as a meathead with two big fists, hung out around the second-floor bathroom. As my luck would have it, my last class was on that floor. Ross had already sucker-punched me earlier that day after he stuck gum in Michael’s hair and Michael had kicked him. Seventh grade was tough enough without having an older “retard” brother in there with you. So, I held it all through last period and the bus ride home, sitting cross-legged and humming “Right Back Where We Started From” until we were dropped off. I had to drag Michael home because he wouldn’t move. The minute I got inside, I kicked open the bathroom door and fell onto the toilet seat because I was too weak to stand.
When I came out, I couldn’t find Michael. With a normal brother, that wouldn’t be cause for alarm because people aren’t predictable. Michael was so predictable it frightened our family, so to not find him sitting in the hallway waiting for me like a dog put the fear of God in me. And God, for the last year, had not been a welcome visitor.
It was only as I turned around toward the stairs, which were gated to keep Michael from going up and down them obsessively, that I noticed the block that kept our sliding back door from opening was out of position. I crept forward warily, as if I was a character in a horror film and Michael might be the corpse I’d find just around the corner, right before the killer would get me too.
He was outside in the backyard, sitting on his knees under our defective pomegranate tree. I heard my dad call the tree defective once because it rarely produced any fruit, and if it did, none of them were sweet enough to be used in Mom’s famous pomegranate pies. We had three other pomegranate trees on the side of our house, but only one in back, because it had become clear after it had been planted that no sunlight ever shone there. The backyard was so shady that the grass under that tree was usually damp, so I was certain Michael was soaked by now. But there he was, just like he would watch television, kneeling almost as if in prayer, each tow pointed inward behind him.
It was odd that Michael had gone outside because he generally didn’t leave the house unless our family was going somewhere together. Stranger still, he hadn’t nagged me for any M&Ms and didn’t turn on his cartoon. These were things he never missed, and if he did, usually he’d throw a complete fit.
I called to him. I yelled at him. Finally, I just walked out there in stood right in front of him.
“Can’t you see I’m talking to someone? Rude!” he yelled.
“What?” I said. “Do you think you’re being funny?”
“If was being funny, I would have said something like ‘did you hear the one about the Fox and the Lion?’”
I ignored him. “It’s a Racer X episode today. I checked.” Those were his favorite episodes. And mine too. It was the only thing we had in common.
“I want to stay here.”
Fine with me, I thought. I headed toward the house again when it dawned on me. “Wait. Who are you talking to?” I asked.
I just turned and continued walking. I had no idea what to think of it. I mean, it was just another odd thing coming out of my crazy brother’s mouth. Big deal.
Three weeks later, right before we were supposed to go to Easter Mass, Mom revealed her first painting.
“Ta-da,” she said sliding the white sheet off the mounted canvas now over our fireplace. “I call it ‘The Lord’s Shepherd.’” She beamed with delight, pride oozing out of her every pore. “I wanted Santa to remember Connor this year.”
I’m not sure what shocked me most: the fact my mom could actually paint, or the painting itself, a horrific rendering of Jesus on the Mount, except that Connor’s face had replaced the Savior’s, and she had manipulated the colors to make it appear like a direct beam of light from heaven was cast upon it.
“It’s terrible,” Michael said, “Your use of dark and light isn’t bad, but it’s a truly dreadful painting.”
My dad couldn’t look at it. In fact, he seemed angry. He excused himself from the room again and went upstairs. My mom ran up to her bedroom crying. Michael cowered in the corner of the living room, his attention still pointed toward Connor’s enlightened smile. We didn’t go to Mass. By the next morning, the painting was down. We thought my mom had removed it. We were wrong.
Mom didn’t leave her room the rest of the day, though as spring moved toward summer, my mom finished two more paintings. She would say things like, “I can hear his voice while I’m working, you know. It’s almost like his hand is guiding me.” She didn’t unveil them anymore. She would just show them to me privately and I would just look at them. Yet each one was more disturbing than the first. The first was a painful tribute to Jesus’s march with the cross through Jerusalem, and the second one was her version of the crucifixion. Both had Connor’s angelic baby face in place of Jesus’s.
I also got a crush on my next-door neighbor, Kitty Sullivan. I’d known Kitty my whole life and disliked her ever since she told on me for putting sand in the kindergarten toilets, but I could never have foreseen how she would turn out. I would stare at her in class now all the time. The minute she would make eye contact, I would look away. One time she caught me just staring at her legs. When I finally realized she was watching me do it, I knocked my head into my open locker trying to close it.
Then, one day in mid-May, as the school year was winding down, Michael started sleeping outside under the tree. Mom was preparing my dad’s lunchbox one night. He came downstairs, opened the Frigidaire, and grabbed a piece of fruit, when he noticed a light coming from the backyard. Michael had set up a tent and had his flashlight on. The tents had been packed away ever since the accident. As I came downstairs for a bedtime snack, my dad grabbed my arm. “What does he think he’s doing?”
“You used the word, ‘think.’ I don’t think he thinks.”
“I want that taken down immediately and for him to get his butt back to bed. It’s a school night.”
So, I marched outside to get Michael. I don’t know why my dad thought I would somehow have any more influence on him than he would. He was the parent. I wasn’t even a teenager. But for some reason, I just continued to follow orders.
The little bit of light glowing from the inside of the tent revealed the few tears it had in it, at the point where the rod forced the tent into its triangular shaped roof. The other was on the floor of it, though you couldn’t see that from the outside. For a moment I could hear that awful sound all over again when that giant branch punctured everything in our lives.
I kicked the tent with my foot. “Dad says to put the tent back.”
He didn’t answer.
“I’m going to stay with Connor from now on,” his voice said from inside.
“I’m sleeping here.”
“Don’t be an idiot. It’s a school night.”
I peered inside, and there Michael was wearing last year’s Winnie-the-Pooh costume from Halloween. I didn’t realize he knew how to get into it himself, but it was wool so at least he wouldn’t freeze.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Connor doesn’t like being alone and I don’t like being alone. We’re alone together.”
I looked around, and then I realized what he was saying.
“Michael, where is Connor?”
“What do you mean? He’s right here.” He pointed at the tree. “He misses me.”
“Why are you dressed as Pooh, you dork?”
“I’m not the dork. It was Connor’s favorite character. Duh!”
I hadn’t remembered that about Connor. Maybe I didn’t know that much about Connor and that’s why I didn’t cry at all at his funeral. It occurred to me then that Connor would have missed Michael more because they played together more. When Connor was a newborn, my parents were particularly nervous about Michael being with him. But he had thrived as an older brother and was gentle as a puppy with Connor, letting him grab on to his fingers and tickling him under his chin. I wondered if Connor would miss me. I had been indifferent about him until he could talk. He was just an additional distraction for my mother, who had never had time to focus on me because of Michael.
I was going to push back harder when I had the realization, why should I care if Michael slept outside or not? I wasn’t his mom.
“Well?” my dad asked as I stepped back inside.
“He won’t leave.”
Mom just kept on making lunches as if we were speaking about the weather.
“You go back out there…”
“That’s not all,” I said. “He thinks the tree back there is Connor.” I smirked but upon seeing my father’s reaction immediately regretted telling him.
“What did you say? You take that back right now.”
“I didn’t say it.”
He smacked me lightly across the back of the head.
“What the hell?”
“Don’t you swear at me, young man.” His face was turning a shade of maroon, as if he was holding his breath even while speaking.
“Fred, what is the matter with you?” my mom asked. “You’re acting mental.”
“Stay out of this, Arlene.” With that, my dad pointed his finger toward me with such disdain I could almost feel the force with which he extended it, like a snake uncoiling when it strikes. “Your brother better have that tent down by morning.” He marched back upstairs and slammed his den door. I walked away.
“I have studying to do, Mom.”
“Stephen. Do this for your father. This has been so hard on him.”
I turned in disbelief, “My father?” I wanted to scream at her. What about on us? Did we matter? Were we thought of anymore? But I couldn’t. I felt like I would simply explode if I uncorked that bottle, so I marched back upstairs and slammed my own bedroom door.
Michael wouldn’t take the tent down. No matter how much I pressed him. Not that next day, or the next day, or the next. Weeks passed and word spread about Michael. My friends heard. The teachers heard. Soon it seemed like everyone knew about Michael, though like most rumors, different versions of it circulated the school. Ross Cumbersome took advantage of that during the second to last week of school, knowing that the teachers could do little to him at that point.
“Your brother’s a dipshit and a tree-hugger, Campbell?”
I was at my locker, getting my Land of the Lost lunchbox. I could feel his breath on my neck he was looming so close. And it spurred that feeling in my stomach that had been residing there for so long. I had had enough of everything.
“Maybe, but somehow he’s not the one repeating seventh grade.”
As quickly as it had come out of my mouth, I felt a moment of respite in my gut, like the pressure had built up in my intestines as a heartily shaken can of Tab would, and now someone had pulled the strip top off. However, I don’t recall much else except a searing pain in my skull as I was thrown forward into my locker.
The next thing I remember was opening my eyes to the awful fluorescent lights of the nurse’s office. I was on my back and felt a cold ice pack or something, wrapped onto the back of my head. I turned my head and sitting just outside the room was Kitty Sullivan. She peered in as I turned my head. Her red curls were unmistakable, as were her legs, always exposed by her mini skirt. She came over to me.
I was confused. I thought for sure she believed I was a pervert.
“Yeah, why are you here?
“Kitty, you can go to your bus now. Thank you for helping,” a voice came from outside.
She looked at me for a second. “You were out cold.”
“You brought me down here?”
She nodded, began to leave, but turned back.
“Is it true, about your brother seeing a ghost?”
“Kind of. He thinks my brother is a tree.”
“Righteous. My parents are nature lovers too,” she said. “Maybe I’ll see you at the last dance this weekend?”
“Me? Oh. Yeah… maybe.”
I sat up on my arms even as my head pounded. Then Kitty was gone, replaced by the nurse, a svelte woman in a yellow cardigan. I had never had a girl take an interest in me, usually because my brother was always around, or at least that’s what I told myself. Now, unwittingly, he was the reason she had. Then, it hit me. My brother!
“Where’s Michael?” I sat all the way up, but the nurse guided me back down.
“We put him on the bus,” she said sweetly.
“What? No, you can’t put Michael on the bus alone.”
There was no telling where Michael might end up. The school knew Michael was different, but I couldn’t believe they didn’t realize how different. Any person with a half a brain knew Michael wasn’t someone that could follow instructions easily. Heck, he might not even know our stop. He could end up never getting off the bus and unless the bus driver remembered, might not be able to tell him his own address.
The school had a teacher drove me home, and I asked if she would drive once around the neighborhood just in case. When I unlocked the front door and ran into my house, there he was, in the backyard, under the pomegranate tree. He had found his way home all by himself. I came running over to him. I wanted to hug him and kill him at the same time.
“Did you know that pomegranate trees can live over two hundred years?”
The blank look on his face neither confirmed nor denied his understanding of any of my feelings as usual. He seemed completely at peace and calm, while I was falling apart.
“How did you get home?” I said, out of breath.
“I walked from the bus stop,” he said.
“But you’ve never taken the bus alone. You don’t even know which one is ours.”
“Connor told me which one, so I got off.”
Things escalated the week before Memorial Day. Michael refused to go to school. He wouldn’t leave his post beside Connor, the defective pomegranate tree. The school began calling and calling. First, just to make sure everything was all right. But then, the warnings came that Michael had to take his final tests, otherwise he would be forced into summer school. Or worse, he’d have to repeat seventh grade.
When the truant officer came by on Friday morning, my father considered it the ultimate embarrassment. He had grown up in a time when kids were to be seen and not heard. It wasn’t bad enough he had strangers coming up the side of our house to stare at Michael in his vigil under the tree, but now his hijinks had brought law enforcement to our house.
“Have either of you heard of The Howard Institute?” I asked. My father gave a knowing look to my mother. “Ms. Pierce drove me home the other day and mentioned it might be a something to consider for Michael. I told her I didn’t know what it was.”
“Tell Ms. Pierce she can mind her own business,” my father replied as he led the officer to our sliding door to the backyard.
My dad tried yanking Michael away from his post under the pomegranate tree. He kicked and screamed so much that soon everyone in the neighborhood came out to watch. I was one of the viewers, standing with my arms folded, a cross between awkwardness and being mortified. Just one yard over, Kitty Sullivan also stood in a pair of white shorts and red tube top. Her pained expression met mine, two kids drenched in the definition of what it is to become teenagers: knowledge combined with helplessness.
My dad gave permission to the officer to help him, but once they removed him from the tent, Michael’s tantrum escalated into the kind of uncomfortable territory where people begin to wonder who was in the wrong. The truant officer decided to stand down and leave. My father was even more defeated. Worse, his authority had been undermined in front of the entire neighborhood.
Even so, parents had announced to a few friends that we’d be having our annual barbecue again. Prior to Connor’s death, Memorial Day weekends were special because Mom would buy the first Popsicles of summer. We would all sit on our front porch as a family and have one after dinner. They were our Summer Solstice. I loved them all but preferred grape. Michael would only eat grape and would reorganize the entire box by flavors if he got to it first. He’d then remove all the grape ones, hide them, or eat them all. One time he hid them in his coat pocket. A week later my mom was changing out our winter wardrobe for our summer coats when she found my galoshes stuck to the ground in grape goo.
I came home that Friday to find my mom kneeling beside Michael out under the tree. She was wearing a blue spring dress, something that she often saved for pleasant church occasions like baptisms or communions. Her normally curly brown hair, which most recently could be found in a state of unkempt, was brushed. As the wind flowed into it, it coalesced in the air, floating among each gust as one majestic sail. I could see the back of her neck and ear, and the profile of her face. She was kneeling, as if in prayer, while Michael sat reading a book aloud. I couldn’t see or hear what it was exactly, though I would guess my mom had given him a Bible. And as she kneeled and Michael read, I felt tears well in my eyes because I hadn’t noticed in so long just how beautiful my mom was. That pressure returned to my gut along with strong feelings of inequity, which conjoined with my anger to provide a vast loneliness I had never experienced before.
That was interrupted by my mom turning her attention to the branches of the tree as she rose from the ground. It was only then I saw what had made her suddenly sink to her knees in praise. The pomegranate tree, the one that had never borne fruit and had barely hung onto life, was full of plump purple-red pomegranates, some the size of softballs. She began picking them, one by one, with added energy for each additional fruit she picked. Michael didn’t seem to mind and even helped her, until she had a bucketful.
When she turned toward the house, I hid. I don’t know why. I was afraid for her to see me for some reason. Maybe it was because I had been crying. Maybe because I didn’t want to ruin her moment. Maybe because I couldn’t understand what I had seen and didn’t want to talk about it. Either way, I crept upstairs to my room and laid there wondering what was going on until I fell asleep.
I came downstairs the next morning, having decided I would make Michael some breakfast. Not just corn flakes. That’s when I saw Kitty Sullivan in a beautiful white lace dress kneeling under the tree. She appeared to be meditating or praying, just as my mother was the day before. I couldn’t see Michael and assumed he was still asleep. I rapidly scrambled some eggs and added a piece of toast. I wasn’t certain he would eat it, but I figured I would leave it just outside the tent. Now, I would get the bonus of saying hi to Kitty Sullivan. But just as I got the food onto a serving tray, I saw her genuflect and run home.
When I laid the breakfast in front of him, Michael looked up at me rather sadly. “Are we out of corn flakes?”
* * *
There’s an old saying that the Good Lord never gives you more than you can handle. In this case, I think my father was an exception.
Our annual barbecue began normally enough, with my father cleaning out the old portable kettle grill on our back porch. He removed the weathered charcoal that had been sitting there over a year. He scrubbed the grill with a steel brush, hosed down the entire kettle, inside and out, and as soon as ten o’clock rolled around, he went out to get a fresh bag of mesquite.
Mom spent the morning getting out our colorful floral trays, which I think she once mentioned were a wedding gift. She prepared fruit and bean salads and made celery with peanut butter for the kids.
It was as if my family had awoken from a deep hibernation and decided nothing had happened in the last year. I didn’t care what the reason. I wasn’t going be the cause of why things didn’t go as planned. I would put on my smile, except this time I might mean it.
My parents had very specific rules about welcoming our guests into our home. They wanted us to be at the door with them and say hello to everyone when they arrived; it was to make them feel like they weren’t a guest at all. After Connor died, we hadn’t had any guests back in the house, not even for condolence calls. That Memorial Day, I sat on the front porch with my Hi-C and patiently awaited the three o’clock hour when my mom asked everyone to arrive. Michael wasn’t seen or heard from, and I just assumed he was keeping court where he had for nearly two months.
The Berkmeier’s came first. Tom Berkmeier was a co-worker of my father’s. He was a gambling man who wore leisure suits and smoked like a steel mill. His wife Patty knew Mom from the PTA, because every mother in the Carrollton area joined the PTA. She had a beehive haircut and wore a female version of Mr. Berkmeier’s outfit. Her son, Thad, whom I once played with, had decided he was too old to come to things like this anymore. I didn’t care. I was waiting for Kitty.
When the Sullivan’s walked over, Herb Sullivan was carrying his box of lawn darts. He loved any kind of game where he felt he could get the best of someone, and lawn darts was it. He immediately spied me on the front porch. I waved hello and ushered them to the backyard.
“Your old man finally going to let you join us this year, or is he still worried he’ll get shown up by both of us?”
My father looked at me and then shot back, “He’s not quite there yet Herb. This game is even dangerous for you.”
Debby Sullivan was pert, short, and nosy. Her son Clay followed behind in checkered shorts, white socks, and white, polished saddle shoes. He was eight and still attached to finding any way to get his mom’s attention. Kitty was nowhere to be found.
“Where’s Kitty?” my mom asked before I could.
“Oh, girls will be girls, you know. She’ll come by at some point,” Mr. Sullivan said.
“Help bring the meat out back,” my father said as we went back inside.
As I collected the plate of thawed hot dogs and hamburgers from refrigerator, I could hear Debby already.
“You heard about Selma Coleman’s son?”
“They finally put him in a special program at The Howard Institute, poor thing. But it’s where he belongs. You know this year he smacked Clay just because he didn’t get the pencil he wanted; that’s something you should be over in third grade, don’t you think?” She was giving a knowing look to my mom, like this had been a conversation they had had before. All the while she was eyeing Michael’s tent, as if she was waiting for something to happen.
“Poor Kevin,” was all my mom could say.
“Poor Kevin? Poor Selma. That boy is happy wherever he is. She’s the one that has had to suffer through all the turmoil. You know what I mean?”
My mother shifted her head from her potato salad. “Can you take that outside for me, Debby?”
I followed my mother and Debby out back, only to find all our guests arrayed like a chess board, stiff and frozen in their own spaces, all facing the same direction. As I slid by the human statues, I noticed Kitty Sullivan had walked to our yard from next door. She was in the same lacy white dress and clogs as that other morning, except she appeared to glow, an angel bearing witness to Jesus’s testament that was coming from our backyard, except that Jesus was a child once again.
My mom’s three paintings were now situated among the branches of Michael’s pomegranate, either having been wedged or jerry-rigged with some rope. The frames had endured some damage and the backings were partially torn, visibly exposing the edges, no doubt from being placed in such a tenuous situation. Nevertheless, Connor’s cherubic mug basked in the warm sunlight created by Mom’s brush. Michael sat beneath the tree in his Winnie-the-Pooh costume, admiring his work; Connor Jesus bestowing his good will to all who approached his shrine.
“Good Lord!” escaped my mom’s mouth before she instinctually covered it, trying to hide her embarrassment at both having her art on display and not meaning to have said anything out loud.
Clay made his way out to the tree pointing. “Look, mom! Look!”
“Yes, we all see it, Clay,” Debby was trying to help my mom get the buffet of salads and condiments situated on our picnic table, but my mom’s eyes were clearly locked on Debby’s knowing look.
Scanning back toward the grill, I intuitively searched for my father, who now had a bunch of hamburger meat at his feet, having dropped a bunch of the patties I had handed him. Then he disappeared into the house.
“Must be awfully hot in that suit,” was all Tom Berkmeier could say while his wife Patty poured herself another cocktail.
“What do you say we get some sparklers?” my mom said. She was just about to head back inside when my father reappeared around the side of the house. His face was strident yet almost numb. He walked right past everyone and directly at Michael.
A harsh cry awoke me from my sudden stupor as Kitty Sullivan came running, pointing to my father’s raised arms in which he held an ax.
Michael was completely unaware of my father’s approach, as he was admiring the way the paintings hung in the tree, as if they were the actual labor of the tree itself. When Michael noticed my father, he smiled at first.
“You want to humiliate your father?” my father yelled.
Michael stop smiling for a moment, not sure what my dad meant. Then my dad swung with as much force as he could, sinking the blade into the base of the tree.
Michael’s face collapsed into confusion.
My father swung again and one of the paintings fell from its hoist and crashed to the ground below, Connor’s face now staring directly up from the ground. Michael began shaking, his whole body was swaying back and forth, almost like his entire being was saying no. Then, he leapt at my father, smacking him repeatedly on the shoulder. My father simply pushed him aside.
Kitty Sullivan moved closer toward the tree, but it was clear that she was torn as to what to do. Her arm extended away from her while she bit her lip, something I was quite used to doing myself.
“Stop!” Michael pleaded. “He’s killing him!” It was the first time I had ever seen an expression akin to pain on my brother’s usually blank face. He looked back at the row of puzzled faces doing nothing but acting as a viewing audience.
My father threw the blade at the base of the tree again sending wood chips scattering. Some landed in Michael’s hair, others shot as far as the base of our house. The last two of the paintings teetered and fell to the ground. Michael bit my dad’s leg.
“Stop!” I yelled.
And now as my father tried to pry Michael off him, I found myself running to protect my brother, the same brother who had been the bane of everything that was my life; the same brother that had taken the eyes off my Raggedy-Ann and Andy dolls because he thought they made better buttons for his teddy bear’s coat; the same brother that got me picked on at school.
Michael was hurting. It never occurred to me before that he could feel pain. It wasn’t just pain from my father’s overpowering physical advantage. Michael was completely enraged beyond anything I had ever seen, and I ran over to grab him before my father really hurt him. But I couldn’t hold him back. When Michael lost it, ten men weren’t his equal. He flailed, clocking me in the chin and several other places. The head of his costume was now dangling down off his neck, and his yellow gloves had come right off.
“Fred, stop!” my mom yelled, and she came running as well.
But my father was equally determined. He hacked and hacked, his arms releasing the pent-up energy of death, sorrow and regret that festered in him for over a year.
“STOP!” Michael yelled at him.
I got back on my feet and ran at my father again as he hacked again at the tree and tackled him to the ground. But it was too late. The tree base released a loud groan, giving in to the onslaught. This time there were no Balsam Adelgids to blame. No tree infestation, no high winds. With one final CRRRRAAACCK the tree was down.
“You’ve put this family through enough,” my dad said, spitting his words, the redness in his face reaching a ripe peach color and his eyes bulging like he was running out of air. Michael was swinging wildly. He struck my dad in the throat, which caused him to start coughing, even gagging.
“He didn’t put you through anything!”
All eyes were on me. My father glared at me as he tried to recover.
“He didn’t put you through anything,” I said again, less loud, but with no less confidence.
Michael stood up, and I noticed his eyes were wet. I couldn’t remember Michael ever crying, and neither could my mother apparently, because she tried to hug him. Michael wouldn’t have it as he threw her off him, which made my father even angrier.
“Don’t you hit your mother.”
“YOU KILLED HIM!” Michael screamed. It wasn’t just a scream like he was yelling across the street to get someone’s attention for dinner. It was a wail, something from deep within, and it was heartbreaking.
Michael ran away full speed past the back patio and down the street. My mother followed calling his name.
“I didn’t kill him!” My father looked at around at all the silent faces, and then he broke down. “I didn’t kill him! For God’s sakes!”
He dropped the ax from his hand and let his head fall into the crook of his arm. He fell to the ground, sobbing. “I DIDN’T KILL MY SON! I didn’t kill my son.”
He reached his hand out to me, or maybe anyone that would grab it. Maybe he was hoping for some angel from above to grab it and remove the guilt. I looked at his hand, and for the moment, I took it in my own. That seemed to bring him back to reality. He wiped his eyes with his sleeve and seemed to realize at once that all of this had just happened in front of all his guests. He pulled his hand away.
“This was a mistake,” he said shakily. “Y’all can go home.”
With that he slowly made his way back to the house, his haven, and went inside and closed the door. The guests were still unsure if my father was serious or just emerging from his fugue state. However, soon I was alone, or so I thought, sitting beside what remained of Connor, the pomegranate tree.
“I liked that tree,” a voice that could only be Kitty Sullivan’s came from over my back shoulder.
“I did too.”
I stood over the painting of Connor on the Mount, his toddler-like face no longer pristine and angelic, but tattered by the weight of tree branches and its fall. The humidity has caused some of the colors to run, such that a streak of red crisscrossed his cheek to his chin. It looked as if he was bleeding.
“I read a book once about a tree and a boy. The tree gives everything to the boy and in the end is left with nothing but a stump to show for it,” Kitty said.
I looked at the remains of the pomegranate, branches and twigs and the brutalized stump still in the ground. Then I turned to meet her gaze.
“Much different tree, I think.”
“I think so too,” she smiled.
Our eyes met, and though I was tempted to ask why she was under the tree that one morning, our connection at that moment was perfectly genuine. I thought better of it. Some things need to stay private. I would have many more opportunities in the future, though, because that conversation sparked a friendship that would last until we both headed off to college.
I spent the next few days with my dad chopping up the rest of the pomegranate while Michael watched despondently from his bedroom window. We talked only about one thing: baseball.
That July, my mom took the pomegranates from our once-defective tree and made her pies. She entered them into the Carroll County Fair and took home first prize. It was the first time I had seen Mom smile in over a year.
* * *
Michael spent a lot of time the next month in his room. He watched from his window as my father and mother placed a marker where the pomegranate tree used to be in an attempt to get him to come out. He did emerge days later, and when I came home from day camp, I found him standing out there again. I traipsed outside and slid up next to him, not sure what to say.
My dad had carved into the marker – Connor, the Pomegranate Tree – May 31, 1976.
By end of July, my parents had decided to enroll Michael in school at The Howard Institute for special needs children, where he honestly belonged. My father was tasked with driving him to Atlanta.
I stood in the garage that late August morning as my mom put his packed bags in the trunk. The humidity ceased for a few minutes and another breeze kicked up. It felt like death had come again, but in an unfamiliar form. I never had feelings except resentment for Michael because of how clueless and selfish he was, but I realized I couldn’t blame him anymore. I didn’t quite know how to say goodbye. Would it even matter to Michael if I did or if I didn’t?
“I’ll be up to see you next week to visit sweetheart.” My mom walked over to him and handed him a lunch sack full of grilled cheese sandwiches. She kissed him on the head. He didn’t seem to notice.
Michael and I regarded each other for a minute. Hugs weren’t something he did. He just got into the car and my father backed out of the driveway.
“Wait!” I cried.
I ran into the house, swung open the freezer door, dumped all the popsicles out, sorted all the grape ones, and ran back downstairs with the box. I knocked on his window and motioned for him to lower it.
“Here, you might need these at school.” I handed it to him through his open window.
He took the box. “Grape!” he smiled as he investigated his lunch sack. “I like grape.” Then suddenly he pulled a sandwich from his bag. “Mom didn’t do my grilled cheese sandwiches right. She doesn’t do them the way you do.”
I smiled as my father drove off. It was in that moment that I heard Michael say, “I love you.” I decided at that moment that I would go every weekend I could to visit Michael, no matter what I had going on. And I did.
When I came back into the house, I found my mother at the kitchen window staring into our backyard.
“That tree was one of the reasons we bought his house,” she said to me. “I loved the idea of having our own pomegranate tree. The previous owner had taken good care of it. I always wanted to grow my own fruit for my pies. Afterwards, when we realized the tree wouldn’t bear any fruit, your father planted the trees on the side of the house for me. It was one of the nicest things anyone’s ever done for me.”
“I didn’t know that,” was all I could think to say.
“I miss him.”
And I don’t know whether she was speaking about Connor or Michael or even my father, but my mom turned, and her eyes met mine. I didn’t realize I was gazing up at her, but in that moment, I had kind of leaned against her unknowingly, and she wrapped her arms around me. And I saw a tear form in the corner of her eye, one that was hardly noticeable at first, as if she herself didn’t realize it was growing. It eventually overtook her eye, expanding like a magnifying glass into her heart. It was the first time I could feel what she felt, and it was grief.
Without warning, I couldn’t breathe right. I could feel my face mirroring hers. The knot that had been in my stomach for such a long time climbed into my throat.
“I miss him too.”
Then the dam burst, and I couldn’t hold it in anymore. All the tears of mourning, sadness and of shattered expectations saturated my face. Mom hugged me hard and tucked my head against her in a way that I hadn’t felt since before Connor was born.
When we calmed, she grabbed two popsicles, and put her arm around me again.
“Come on,” she said.
Together, we went outside to sit on the front porch, licked our popsicles, and officially welcomed in a new season.
JONATHAN PHILLIPS – MY BROTHER, THE POMEGRANATE TREE won Honorable Mention in the 52nd New Millennium Writers international fiction contest. Other writings of his have appeared in Fabula Argentea, Front Porch Review, Loch Raven Review, Carrier Pigeon Magazine, Jewish Literary Journal.
He is the author of four stage plays, and co-author of six screenplays and two television pilots. He was rated 2008 fantasy football analyst of the year in the Columbus Dispatch’s national contest and was the first writer from RotoExperts.com to be syndicated to Sports Illustrated online. He resides in Sherman Oaks, California with his wife and two sons.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “My Brother, the Pomegranate Tree”:
This is author Jonathan Phillip’s second appearance in our magazine (“Blank Canvas” in issue #18 was the first).
The unusual title “My Brother, the Pomegranate Tree” immediately captures the reader’s attention, and the opening eight words engender the story’s promise: “It was a fir tree that exacted the toll…” After that, the first scene sets up the conflict for the rest of this heartbreaking piece of a family that already had one problem to deal with and descends into complete dysfunction after the death of a child.
We chose this piece for its deep emotional impact and how well the author paints the characters as three-dimensional individuals, each dealing with the situation in a different way. The biggest surprise is how Michael, with his skewed and simple view of the world, brings the fractured family back together.