Nominated for the Locus Award for Best Novelet of the Year
We Never Talk About My Brother
by Peter S. Beagle
Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure,
I'd face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
-- A. E. Housman
Nobody does anymore, haven't for years -- well, that's why you're here, ain't it,
one of those "Where Are They Now" pieces of yours? -- but it's funny, when you
think about it. I mean, even after what happened, and all this time, you'd think
Willa and I -- Willa's my sister -- you'd think we'd say at least Word One about
him now and then. To each other, maybe not to anyone else. But we don't, not
ever, even now. Hell, my wife won't talk about Esau, and she'd have more reason
than most. Lucky you found me first -- she'd have run you right on out of the
house, and she could do it, too. Tell the truth, shame the devil, the only reason I'm
sitting here talking to you at all is you having the mother wit to bring along that
bottle of Blanton's Single Barrel. Lord, I swear I can not remember the last time I
had any of that in the house.
Mind if you record me? No, no, you go ahead on, get your little tape thing going,
okay by me. Doesn't make a bit of difference. You're like to think I'm pretty
crazy before we're through, one way or another, but that don't make any
Well, okay then. Let's get started.
Last of the great TV anchormen, my brother, just as big as newsmen ever used to
get. Not like today -- too many of them in the game, too much competition, all
sort of, I don't know, interchangeable. More and more folks getting the news on
their computers, those little earphone gadgets, I don't know what-all. It's just
different than it was. Way different. Confess I kind of like it.
But back then, back then, Esau was just a little way south of a movie star.
Couldn't walk down the street, go out grocery-shopping, he'd get jumped by a
whole mob of his fans, his groupies. Couldn't turn on the TV and not see him on
half a dozen channels, broadcasting, or being interviewed, or being a special guest
on some show or other. I mean everything from big political stuff to cooking
shows, for heaven's sake. My friend Buddy Andreason, we go fishing weekends,
us and Kirby Rich, Buddy used to always tease me about it. Point to those little
girls on the news, screaming and running after Esau for autographs, and he'd say,
"Man, you could get yourself some of that so easy! Just tell them you're his
brother, you'll introduce them -- man, they'd be all over you! All over you!"
No, it's not a nickname, that was real. Esau Robbins. Right out of the Bible, the
Old Testament, the guy who sold his birthright to his brother for a mess of pottage.
Pottage is like soup or stew, something like that. Our Papa was a big Bible reader,
and there was ... I don't know, there was stuff that was funny to him that wasn't
real funny to anyone else. Like naming me and Esau like he did.
A lot easier to live with Jacob than a funny name like Esau, I guess -- you know,
when you're a kid. But I wasn't all that crazy about my name either, tell you the
truth, which is why I went with Jake first time anybody ever called me that in
school, never looked back. I mean, you think about it now. The Bible Esau's the
hunter, the fisherman, the outdoor guy -- okay, maybe not the brightest fellow,
not the most mannerly, maybe he cusses too much and spits his tobacco where he
shouldn't, but still. And Jacob's the sneaky one, you know? Esau's come home
beat and hungry and thirsty, and Jacob tricks him -- face it, Jacob tricks him right
out of his inheritance, his whole future, and their mama helps him do it, and God
thinks that's righteous, a righteous act. Makes you wonder about some things,
Did he have a bad time of it growing up, account of his name? 'Bout like you'd
expect. I had to fight his battles time to time, if some big fellow was bullyragging
him, and my sister Willa did the same, because we were the older ones, and that's
just what you do, right? But we didn't see him, you know what I mean? Didn't
have any idea who he was, except a nuisance we had to take care of, watch after,
keep out of traffic. He's seven years younger than Willa, five years younger than
me. Doesn't sound like much now, but when you're a kid it's a lot. He might
have been growing up in China, for all we knew about him.
I'm embarrassed to say it flat out, but there's not a lot I really recall about him as a
kid, before the whole thing with Donnie Schmidt. I remember Esau loved
tomatoes ripe off the vine -- got into trouble every summer, stealing them out of
the neighbors' yards -- and he was scared of squirrels, can you believe that?
Squirrels, for God's sake. Said they chased him. Oh, and he used to hurt himself
a lot, jumping down from higher and higher places -- ladders, trees, sheds and all
such. Practicing landing, that was the idea. Practicing landing.
But I surely remember the first time I ever really looked at Esau and thought, wow,
what's going on here? Not at school -- in the old Pott Street playground, it was.
Donnie Schmidt -- mean kid with red hair and a squinty eye -- Donnie had Esau
down on his back, and was just beating him like a rug. Bloody nose, big purple
shiner already coming up ... I came running all the way across the playground,
Willa too, and I got Donnie by the neck and hauled him right off my brother.
Whopped him a couple of times too, I don't mind telling you. He was a nasty one,
Esau had quit fighting, but he didn't bounce up right away, and I wouldn't have
neither, the whupping he'd taken. He was just staring at Donnie, and his eyes had
gone really pale, both of them, and he pointed straight at Donnie -- looked funny,
I'm bound to say, with him still lying flat down in that red-clay mud -- and he
kind of whispered, "You got run over." Hadn't been as close as I was, I'd never
have heard him.
"You got run over." Like that -- like it had already happened, you see? Exactly
-- like he was reading the news. You got it.
Okay. Now. This is what's important. This is where you're going to start
wondering whether you should have maybe sat just a little closer to the door. See,
what happened to Donnie, didn't happen then -- it had already happened a week
before. Seriously. Donnie, he didn't disappear, blink out of sight, right when
Esau said those words. He just shrugged and walked away, and Willa took Esau
home to clean him up, and I got into a one-o-cat game -- what you probably call
"horse" or "catcher-flies-up" -- with a couple of my pals until dinnertime. And
Ma yelled some at Esau for getting into a fight, but nobody else thought anything
more about it, then or ever. Nobody except me.
Because when I woke up next morning, everybody in town knew Donnie Schmidt
had been dead for a week. Hell, we'd all been to the funeral.
I didn't see it happen, but Willa did -- or that's what she thought, anyway.
Donnie'd been walking to school, and old Mack Moffett's car went out of control
somehow, crossed three lanes in two, three seconds, and pinned him against the
wall of a house. Poor kid never knew what hit him, and neither did anyone who
ever went over the car or gave poor Mack a sobriety test. The old man died a
couple of months later, by the way. Call it shock, call it a broken heart, if you like
-- I don't know.
But the point is. The point is that Donnie Schmidt was alive as could be the day
before, beating up on Esau on the playground. I remembered that. But I'd also
swear on a stack of Bibles that he'd been killed in an accident the week before,
and Willa would swear on the Day of Judgment that she was there. And we'd both
pass any and every lie-detector test you want to put us through. Because we know,
we know we're telling the truth, so it's not a lie. Right?
It's just not true.
Told you. Told you you'd be looking at me like that about now ... no, don't say
nothing, just listen, okay? There's more.
Now I got no idea if that was the first time he did it -- made something happen by
saying it already had. No idea. Like I said before, it was just the first time I ever
really saw my brother.
Nor it didn't change a lot between us, him and Willa and me. Willa was all books
and choir rehearsals, and I was all cars and trucks and hunting with my Uncle
Rick, and Esau pretty much got along on his own, same as he'd always done. He
was just Esau, bony as a clothes rack, all elbows and knees -- Papa used to say
that he was so thin you could shave with him -- but if you looked closely, I guess
you could have seen how he might yet turn out goodlooking. Only we weren't
looking closely, none of us were, not even me. Not even after Donnie. One of
anything is still just one of anything, even if it's strange. You can put it out of
your mind. So across the dinner table was about it for Willa and me. If we were
But while I wasn't really looking, I can't say I didn't pay a little more attention in
the looking I did, if you know what I mean.
One time I do recall, when Esau was maybe twelve, maybe thirteen, in there
somewhere. Must have been thirteen, because I was already out of high school
and working five days a week to help with the rent. Anyway I'm up on the roof of
the house on a Saturday, replacing a few shingles got blown off in the last
windstorm. Hammering and humming, not thinking about much of anything, and
suddenly I turn my head and there's Esau, a few feet away, squatting on his heels
and watching me. Never heard him climbing up, no idea how long he's been
there, but I know I don't like that look -- sets me to thinking about the one he
gave Donnie. What if he says to me, "You fell off the roof," and it turns out I'm
dead, and been dead some while? So I say "Hey, you want to hand me those nails
over there?" friendly and peaceable as you like. Probably the most I've said to
him in a week, more.
So he hands me the nails, and I say thanks, and I go back to work. And Esau sits
watching me a few minutes more, and then he asks, right out of nowhere, "Jake,
you believe in God?"
Like that. I didn't even look up, just grunted, "Guess I do."
"You think God's nice?"
His voice was still breaking, I recall -- went up and down like a seesaw, made me
laugh. I said, "Minister says so."
He wouldn't quit on it, wouldn't let up. "But do you think God's nice?"
I dropped a couple of shingles, and made him go down and bring them back up to
the roof for me. When he'd done that, I said, "You look around at this world, you
think God's nice?"
He didn't answer for a while, just sat there watching me work. By and by he said,
"If I was God, I'd be nice."
I set my eye on him then, and I don't know what made me do it, but I said, "You
would, huh? Tell it to Donnie Schmidt."
I'd never said anything like that to him before. I'd never mentioned Donnie
Schmidt since the funeral, because I knew in my mind -- like Willa, like everyone
else -- that Donnie was dead and buried a week before him and Esau had that
fight. Anyway, Esau's eyes filled up, which hardly ever happened, he wasn't ever
a crier, and his face got all red, and he stood up, and for a minute I thought he
actually was about to come at me. But he didn't -- he just screamed, with that
funny breaking voice, "I would be a nice God! I would!"
And he was off and gone, I guess down the ladder, though maybe he jumped, the
way he was doing then, because he was limping a bit at dinnertime. Anyway, we
never talked about God no more, nor about Donnie Schmidt neither, at least while
Esau still lived here.
I never talked about any of this with Papa. He was pretty much taken up with his
Bible and his notions and his work at the tannery, before he passed. But Ma saw
more than she let on. One time ... there was this one time she was still up when I
come home from little Sadie Morrison's place, she as later married that Canuck
fellow, Rene Arceneaux, and she said -- that's Ma, not Sadie -- she said to me,
"Jacob, Esau's bad."
I said, "Ma, goodness' sake, don't say that. There's nothing wrong with the kid
except he's kind of a pain in the ass. Otherwise I got no quarrel with him."
Which was true enough then, and maybe still is, depending how you measure.
Ma shook her head. I remember, she was sitting right where you are, by the
fireplace -- this was their house, you know -- just rocking and shelling peas --
and she said, "Jacob, I ain't nearly as silly as everybody always thinks I am. I
know when somebody's bad. Esau, he makes people into ghosts."
I looked at her. I said, "Ma. Ma, don't you never go round saying stuff like that,
they'll put you away for sure. You're saying Esau kills people, and he never killed
nobody!" And I believed it, you see, absolutely, even though I also knew better.
And Ma ... Ma, whatever she knew, maybe she knew it because she was just as
silly as folks thought she was. Hard to say about Ma. She said, "That girl last
year, the one he was so gone on, who wanted to go off to New York to be an
actress. You remember her?"
"Susie Harkin," I said. "Sure I remember. Plane crashed, killed everybody on
board. It was real sad."
Ma didn't say nothing for a long time. Rocked and shelled, rocked and shelled. I
stood and watched her, snatching myself a pea now and then, and thinking on how
wearied she was getting to look. Then she said, almost mumbling-like, "I don't
think so, Jacob. I'm persuaded she got killed in that crash, but I don't think so."
That's exactly how she put it -- exactly. I didn't say anything myself, because
what could I say -- Ma, you're right, I remember it both ways too? I remember
you telling me she gave him the mitten -- that's the way Ma talks; she meant the
girl broke up with him -- and left, and I remember Susie doing just fine up there
in the city, she even sent me a letter ... but I also remember her and Esau talking
about getting married someday, only then she stepped on that flight and never got
to New York at all ... I'm going to tell Ma that, and get her going, when the city
health people already thought she ought to be off in some facility somewhere?
Things wandered along, way they do, just happening and not happening. Willa
went all the way on to state college and become a teacher, and then she got
married and moved all that way to Florida, Jacksonville Beach. Got two nice kids,
my niece Carol Ann and my nephew Ben. Ma finally did have to go away, and
soon enough she passed too. Me, I kept on at the same hardware store where you
found me, only after a while I came to own it -- me and the bank. Married Middy
Jo Staines, but she died. No children.
And Esau ... well, he graduated the town high school like me and Willa -- unless
maybe we just think he did -- and then the University of Colorado gave him a
scholarship, unless they just think so, and he was gone out of here quicker than
scat. Never really came home after that, except the once, which I'll get to in a bit.
Got through college, got the job with that station in Baltimore, and the next time
we saw him he was on the air, feeding stories to the network, the way they do --
like, "And here's Esau Robbins, our Baltimore correspondent to tell you more
about today's tragic explosion," or whatever. And pretty soon it was D.C. and the
national news, every night, and you look up and your baby brother's famous.
Couldn't have been over thirty.
And looking good, too, no question about it. Grew up taller than me, taller than
Papa, with Ma's dark hair and dark blue eyes, and that look -- like he belonged
right where he was, telling you things he knows that you don't, and telling them in
that deep, warm, friendly voice he had. Lord, I don't know where he rented that
voice -- he sure didn't have it when he lived in this town. Voice like that, he
could have been reciting Mother Goose or something, wouldn't have mattered.
When you heard it you just wanted to listen.
I used to watch him on the TV, my brother Esau, telling us what's really doing in
Afghanistan, in Somalia, in France, in D.C., and I'd look at his eyes, and I'd
wonder if he ever even thought about poor, nasty Donnie Schmidt. And I'd
wonder how he found out he could do it, how'd he discover his talent, his knack,
whatever you want to call it. I mean, how does a little boy, schoolyard-age boy --
how does he deal with a thing like that? How does he even practice it, predicting
something he wants to happen -- and then, like that, it's true, and it's always been
true, it's just a plain fact, like gravity or something, with nobody knowing any
better for sure but me? Town like this, there's not a lot of people you can talk to
about that kind of thing. Must of made him feel even more alone, you know?
The visit. Whoo. Yeah, well -- all right. All right.
It wasn't hardly a real visit, first off. See, he'd already been the anchorman on that
big news program for at least ten, twelve years when they got the notion to do a
show on his return to the old home town. So they sent a whole crowd along with
him -- a camera crew, and a couple of producers, the way they do, and there was a
writer, and some publicity people, and some other folks I can't recall. Anyway,
I'll tell you, it was for sure the biggest thing to hit this place since Ruth and
Gehrig barnstormed through here back in the Twenties. They were here a whole
week, that gang, and they spent a lot of money, and made all the businesses happy.
Can't beat that with a stick, can you?
And Esau walked through it all like a king -- just like a king, no other word for it.
They filmed him greeting old friends, talking with his old teachers, stopping in at
all his old hangouts, even reading to kids at the library. Mind you, I don't
remember him ever having any hangouts, and the teachers didn't seem to
remember him much at all. As for the old friends ... look, if Esau had any friends
when we were all kids, I swear I don't recall them. I mean, there they were in this
documentary thing, shaking his hand, slapping his back, having a beer with him in
Henry's -- been there fifty, sixty years, that place -- but I'd never seen any of
them with him as a kid, 'ceptin maybe a few of them were pounding on him, back
before Donnie. Thing is, I don't imagine Esau was trying very hard to get the
details right. Wouldn't have hardly thought we was worth the trouble. Willa
thought she recognized one or two, and remembered this and that, but even she
Oh, yeah, her and me, we were both in it. They paid for Willa to come from
Florida -- flew little Ben and Carol Ann, too, but not her husband Jerry, cause
they just wanted to show Esau being an uncle. They'd have put her and the kids
up at the Laurel Inn with the crew, but she wanted to stay here at the old house,
which was fine with me. Don't get to be around children much.
We didn't see much of Esau even after Willa got here, but a day or two before they
wrapped up the film, he dropped over to the house for dinner, which meant that
the whole crew dropped over too. We were the only ones eating, and it was the
strangest meal I've ever had in my life, what with all those electricians setting up
lights, and the sound people running cables every which way, and a director, for
God's sake, a director telling us when to start eating -- they sent out to
Horshach's for prime rib -- and where to look when the camera was on us, and
what Willa should say to the kids when they asked for seconds. Carol Ann got so
nervous, she actually threw up her creamed corn. And Willa got so mad at the
lighting guy, because Ben's got eye trouble, and the lights were so bright and hot
... well, it was a real mess, that's all. Just a real mess.
But Esau, he just sat through it all like it was just another broadcast, which I guess
to him it was. Never got upset about all the retakes -- lord, that dinner must have
taken three hours, one thing another -- never looked sweaty or tired, always found
something new and funny to say to the camera when it started rolling again. But
that's who he was talking to, all through that show -- not us, for sure. He never
once looked straight at any of us, Willa or the kids or me, if the camera wasn't on
He was a stranger in this house, the house where we'd all grown up -- more of a
stranger than all those cameramen, those producers. He could just as well have
been from another country, where everybody's great-looking, but they don't speak
any language you ever heard of. With all the craziness and confusion, the lights
and the reflectors, and the microphones swinging around on pole-things, I
probably studied on my brother longer and harder than I'd ever done in my life
before. There at that table, having that fake dinner, I studied on him, and I thought
a few new things.
See, I couldn't believe it was just Esau. What I could believe is there's no such
thing as history, not the way they teach it to you in school. Wars, revolutions, all
those big inventions, all those big discoveries ... if there's been a bunch of people
like Esau right through time -- or even a few, a handful -- then the history books
don't signify, you understand what I'm saying? Then it's all just been what any
one of them wanted, decided on, right at this moment or that, and no great, you
know, patterns to the way things happen. Just Esau, and whatever Others, and you
got run over. Like that. That's what I came to think.
And I know I'm right. Because Susie Harkin was in that film.
Yeah, yeah, I know what I told you about the plane crash, the rest of it, I'm telling
you this now. She walked in by herself, bright as you please, just before they
finally got around to putting real food on the table, and sat right down across from
Esau, between me and little Ben. The TV people looked at the director for orders,
and I guess he figured she was family, no point fussing about it, and let her stay.
He was too busy yelling at the crew about the lights, anyway.
Esau was good. I am here to tell you, Esau was good. There was just that one
moment when he saw her ... and even then, you might have had to be me or Willa,
and watching close, before you noticed the twist of blank panic in his eyes. After
that he never looked straight at her, and he sure never said her name, but you
couldn't have told one thing from his expression. Susie didn't waste no time on
him, neither; she was busy helping little Ben with his food, cutting his meat up
small for him, and making faces to make him laugh. Ma had said "Esau makes
people into ghosts," but I don't guess you'd find a ghost cutting up a boy's prime
rib for him, do you? Not any kind of ghost I ever heard about.
When she'd finished helping Ben, she looked right up at me, and she winked.
As long as she'd been gone, Susie Harkin didn't look a day different. I don't
suppose you'd ever have called her a beauty, best day she ever saw. Face too thin,
forehead a shade low, nose maybe a bit beaky -- but she had real nice brown eyes,
and when she smiled you didn't see a thing but that smile. I'd liked her a good bit
when she was going out with Esau, and I was real sorry when she died in that
plane crash. So was Willa. And now here Susie was again, sitting at our old
dinner table with all these people around, winking at me like the two of us had a
secret together. And we did, because I knew she'd been dead, and now she
wasn't, and she knew I knew, and she knew why I knew besides. So, yeah, you
could say we had our secret.
Esau didn't do much more looking at me during the dinner than he did at Susie,
but that was the one time he did. I saw him when I turned to say something to
Willa. It wasn't any special kind of a look he gave me, not in particular; it was
maybe more like the first time I really looked at him, when he did what he did to
Donnie Schmidt. As though he hadn't ever seen me either, until that glance, that
wink, passed between Susie Harkin and me.
Anyway, by and by the little ones fell asleep, and Willa took them off to bed, and
the crew packed up and went back to the Laurel Inn, and Susie right away
vanished into the kitchen with all the dirty dishes -- "No, I insist, you boys just
stay and talk." You don't hear women say that much anymore.
So there we were, me and Esau, everything gotten quiet now -- always more quiet
after a lot of noise, you notice? -- and him still not really looking at me, and me
too tired and fussed and befuddled not to come straight at him. But the first thing
I asked was about as dumb as it could be. "Squirrels still chasing you?"
Whatever he was or wasn't expecting from me, that sure as hell wasn't it. He
practically laughed, or maybe it was more like he grunted in a laugh sort of way,
and he said, "Not so much these days." Close to, he looked exactly like he looked
on the TV -- exactly, right down to the one curl off to the left on his forehead, and
the inlaid belt buckle, and that steepling thing he did with his fingers. Really was
like talking to the screen.
"Susie's looking fine, don't you think?" I asked him. "I mean, for having been
dead and all."
Oh, that reached him. That got his attention. He looked at me then, all right, and
he answered, real slow and cold and careful, "I don't know what you're talking
about. What are you talking about?"
"Come on, Esau," I said. "Tomorrow I might wake up remembering mostly
whatever you want me to remember, the way you do people, but right now,
tonight, I'm afraid you're just going to have to sit here and talk to me --"
"Or what?" Those two words cracked out of him just like a whip does -- there's
the forward throw, almost gentle, like you're fly-fishing, and then the way you
bring it back, that's what makes that sound. He didn't say anything more, but the
color had drained right out of his eyes, same way it happened with Donnie
Schmidt. Didn't look much like the TV now.
I asked him, "You planning to make me a ghost too? Kill me off in a plane crash a
few weeks ago? I ought to tell you, I hate flying, and everybody knows it, so you
might want to try something different. Me, I always wanted to get shot by a
jealous husband at ninety-five or so, but it's your business, I wouldn't presume." I
don't know, something just took me over and I didn't care what I said right then.
He didn't answer. We could hear Susie rattling things in the kitchen, and Willa
singing softly to her kids upstairs. Got a pretty voice, Willa does. Wanted to do
something with it, but what with school, and then there was Jerry, and then there
was the trouble starting with Ma ... well, nothing ever came of it somehow. But I
could see Esau listening, and just for a minute or so he looked like somebody who
really might have had a sister, and maybe a brother too, and was just visiting with
them for the evening, like always. I took the moment to say, "Papa was funny,
wasn't he, Esau? Getting us backwards like that, with the naming?"
He stared at me. I shrugged a little bit. I said, "Well, you think about it some.
Here's Jacob, which I'm named for, cheating Esau out of his inheritance, tricks
him into swapping everything due him for a mess of chicken soup or some such.
But with us ... with us, it kind of worked out t'other way round, wouldn't you say?
I mean, when you think about it."
"I don't know what you're talking about." He said it in the TV voice, but his eyes
still weren't his TV eyes, reassuring everyone that the world hadn't ended just yet.
"Papa was as crazy as Ma, only different, and our names don't signify a thing
except he was likely drunk at the time." He slammed his hand on the table, setting
all the dishes Susie hadn't cleared off yet to rattling. Esau lowered his voice
some. "I never stole anything from you, Jake Robbins. I wouldn't have lowered
myself to it, any more than I'd have lowered myself to take along a lump of sand-covered catshit from this litterbox of a town, the day I finally got out of here. The
one thing I ever took away was me, do you understand that, brother? Nothing
more. Not one damn thing more."
His face was so cramped up with anger and plain contempt that I couldn't help
putting a finger out toward him, like I was aiming to smooth away a bunch of
rumples. "You want to watch out," I said. "Crack your makeup." Esau came to
his feet then, and I really thought he was bound to clock me a good one. I said,
"Sit down. There's ladies in the house."
He went on glaring in my face, but by and by he kind of stood down -- didn't
quite sit, you understand, but more leaned on the table, staring at me. He'd
cracked his makeup, all right, and I don't mean the stuff they'd put on his skin for
the filming. You wouldn't want that face telling you any kind of news right then.
"I bet Papa knew," I said. "Ma just had like a glimmer of the truth, but Papa ...
likely it's how come he drank so much, and read the Bible so crazy. It's his side
of the family, after all."
Esau said it again. "I don't know what you're talking about," but there wasn't
much what you might call conviction in the words. It's an odd thing, but he was
always a real bad liar -- embarrassing bad. I'd guess it's because he's never had
to lie in his life: he could always make the lie be true, if he cared to. Handy.
I said, "I'm talking about genetics. Now there's a word I hadn't had much use for
until recently -- knew what it meant, more or less, and let it go at that. But there's
a deal to genetics when you look close, you know?" No answer; nothing but that
bad-guy stare, with something under it that maybe might be fear, and maybe not. I
kept going. "Papa and his Bible. There's a lot in the Bible makes a lot more sense
that way, genetics. What if ... let's say all those miracles didn't have a thing to do
with God, nor Moses, nor Jesus, nor Adam's left ball, whatever. What if it was all
people like you? Two, three, four, five thousand years of people like you? The
Bible zigs and zags and contradicts itself, tells the same story forty ways from
Sunday, and don't connect up to nothing half the time, even to a preacher. But
now you back off and suppose for one moment that the Bible's actually trying to
record a world that keeps shifting this way and that, because people keep messing
with it. What would you say about that, Esau?"
Nothing. Not a word, not a flicker of an eyelid, nothing for the longest time --
and then, of all things, my brother began to smile. "Declare to goodness," he said,
and it wasn't the smooth TV voice at all, but more like the way his mouth was
born, as we say around here. "Even a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while.
Continue, please. You have all my attention."
"No, I don't yet," I said back to him, "but I will. Because with genetics, it's a
family thing. Somebody in a family has a gift, a talent, there's likely to be
somebody else who has it too. Oh, maybe not the same size or shape of a gift, but
close enough. Close enough."
I surely had his attention now, let me tell you. His hands were opening and
closing like leaves starting to stir when a storm's coming. "Willa doesn't have
that thing you have," I said, "none of it, not at all. She's the lucky one. But I do.
Wouldn't have guessed it before, not even seeing what you'd done, but now I
know better. That same power to mess with things, only I guess I never needed to.
Not like you."
Esau started to say something, but then he didn't. I said, "I turned out pretty lucky
myself. I had Middy Jo -- for a while, anyway. I got a job suited me down to the
ground. Didn't have nearly so many people to get even with as you had, and the
ones I did I have I mostly forgot over time. I was always forgetful that way.
Forget my head, it wasn't screwed on." Papa always used to say that about me, the
same way he used to say Willa'd make some woman a great husband, because she
could get the car started when he couldn't. Never yet heard old Jerry Flores
"What you did to Donnie Schmidt," I said. "What you did to Susie. What I know
you did to a few other folks, even though you made sure the rest of everybody
didn't remember. It all scared me so bad, I would never gone anywhere near
power like that, if I'd known I had it."
Esau's voice was sort of thickish now, like he was trying not to cry, which surely
wasn't the case. He said, "You can't do what I do."
"You know better than that, Esau. Same way I know you've never bent reality
towards even one good thing. I watch you on the TV, every night, just about, and
everything you report on -- it's death, it's all death, nothing but death, one way or
another. A million baby girls left out on the street in China, a raft full of people
capsizes off Haiti, some kid wipes out a whole schoolyard in Iowa, there's more
people starving in Africa, getting massacred, there's suicide bombers and serial
killers all over the place -- it's you, it's your half of the genetics. It's what you
are, Esau, and I'm sorry for you."
"Don't be." It was only a whisper, but it came at me like a little sideways swipe
from one of those oldtime straight razors, the kind Papa had. Esau said, "You're
the good one." It wasn't a question. "Well, who'd have thought it? My loud-mouthed, clumsy, stupid big brother turns out to be the superhero in the closet, the
champion with a secret identity. Amazing. Just shows you something or other.
"No," I said. "No, I don't care about that. I just wanted you to know I know.
About the genetics and so forth." And then I said it -- because he's right, I am
stupid. I said, "You're trying to be the Angel of Death, Esau, and I'm just so sorry
for you, that's all."
He'd been looking toward the kitchen, like he expected something -- or maybe
didn't expect it -- but now he turned around on me, and I'm not ever about to
forget what I saw then. It was like we were kids again, and he was screaming at
me, "I would be a nice God! I would!" Except now the scream was all in his eyes:
they were stretched wide as wide, like howling jaws, and the whites had gone too
white, so they made the pupils look, not black, but a kind of musty, crumbly gray,
like his eyes were rotting, nothing left in there but gray anger, gray pain, gray
brick-lined schoolyards, where my brother Esau learned what he was. I'd been
halfway joking when I'd said that about the Angel of Death. Not any more.
"Sorry for me, Jake?" It wasn't the razor-whisper, but it wasn't any voice you'd
have recognized, either. Esau said, "Sorry for me? I'm on television, asshole.
I'm a star. Have you the slightest notion of what that means? It means millions
-- millions -- of people inviting me into their homes, listening to me, believing in
me, trusting me. Hell, I'm a family member -- a wise old uncle, a mysteriously
well-traveled cousin, dropping by to tell them tales of the monsters and fools who
run their lives, of the innocents who died horribly today, the people murdered to
please somebody's god, the soldiers being sent to die in some place they never
heard of, the catastrophes waiting to happen tomorrow, unless somebody does
something right away. Which they won't, but that isn't my work. I can't claim
He smiled at me then, and it was a real smile, young and joyous as you like. He
said, "Don't you understand? They love death, all those people, they love what I
do -- they need it, no matter how awful they say it is. It's built into the whole
species, from the beginning, and you know it as well as I do. You may be the
Good Angel, but I'm the one they hang out with in the kitchen and the living
room, I'm the one they have their coffee with, or a beer, while I smile and lay on
some more horror for them. Meaning no offense, but who wants what you're
"Those people who watch you don't know what they're buying," I said back.
"Your stories aren't just stories, you aren't just reporting. You're making real
things happen in the real world. I see you on the TV and I can feel all those things
you talk about, and explain about, and tell folks to be afraid of, I can feel them
coming true, every night. It's like Ma said, your stories kill people." He didn't
turn a hair, or look away, and I didn't expect him to. I said, "And I keep
wondering, how many like us might be doing the same right now, all over
everywhere. Messing with people, messing with the world so nothing makes no
sense, one day to the next, so most everybody gets run over in the end, like Donnie
Schmidt. You suppose that's all we can do? That's all it's for, this gift we've got?
Esau shrugged. "No idea. It suits me." He gave me that smile again, made him
look like a happier little kid than he ever was. "But why should it concern you,
Jake? Are you planning to devote the rest of your life to writing letters to my
sponsors, telling them I'm the source of all the pain and misery in the world? I'll
be very interested in watching your efforts. Fascinated, you could say."
"No," I told him. "I've got a store to run, and I meet Earl Howser and Buddy
Andreason for breakfast at Buttercup on Tuesdays, and it's not my place to chase
around after you, fixing stuff. What I know's what I know, and it don't include
putting the world back the way it ought to be. It's too late for that. Way too late
for heroes, champions, miracles. Don't matter what our heritage was maybe meant
for -- your side got hold of it first, and you won long ago. No undoing that, Esau,
I ain't fool enough to think otherwise. I'm still sorry for you, but I know your
side's won, this side the grave."
He wasn't listening to me, not really. Just about all his attention was focusing on
the kitchen right then, because Susie'd begun whistling while she was clattering
pots in the sink. She could always whistle like a man, Susie could. Esau took a
step toward the sound.
"I wouldn't," I advised him. "Best leave her be for a bit. What with one thing
another, she's not real partial to you just now. You know how it is."
He stopped where he was, but he didn't answer. Halfway crouched, halfway plain
puzzled -- I've seen dogs look like that, when they couldn't figure what to do
about that big new dog on the block. He said, real low, "I didn't bring her back."
"No," I said. "You couldn't have."
He didn't hear that right off; then he did, and he was just starting to turn when
Susie came out of the kitchen, drying her hands on a dishtowel and asking, "Jake,
would you like me to wash that old black roasting pan while I'm at it?" Then she
saw Esau standing there, and she stood real still, and he did too. Lord, if I closed
my eyes, I'd see them like that right now.
I stood up from the table, so that made three of us on our feet, saying nothing.
Esau was breathing hard, and I couldn't hardly tell if Susie was breathing at all.
That made me anxious -- you know, considering -- so I said, "Esau was just
leaving. Wanted to say goodbye."
Neither of them paid the least bit of attention to me. Susie finally managed to say,
"You're looking well, Esau. That's a really nice tie."
Esau's voice sounded like a cold wind in an empty place. He said, "You're rotting
in the ground. You're bones."
"No." Susie's own voice was shaky, but stronger than his, some way. "No, Esau,
I'm not. I refuse."
She sort of peeked past him at me as she said that, and Esau caught it. He turned.
"Susie stays," I said. I was madder than I ever remembered being, and I was
wound up, ready to go at whoever, let's do it, just pick your weapons. And I was
heavily spooked, too, because pretty much the only mixups I've been in my whole
life, they were always about hauling some guy off my baby brother one more time.
Heritage or not, I'm no fighter, never wanted to be one. It's just I always liked
As for the way Esau stared at me, it did clear up a few things, and that's about all
I'm going to tell you. I looked back into those TV eyes, and I saw what lived in
there, and I thought, well, anyway, I've still got a sister. If you can get through the
rest of your life without ever having that feeling, I'd recommend it.
Esau said, "She goes back where she belongs. Now."
"She didn't belong there in the first place," I said to him. "Leave her be, Esau.
She's got no business being dead."
"You don't know what you're doing," he said. His lips were twitching like they
didn't belong to his face. "Stay out of it, Jake."
"Not a chance," I said. "I can't fix up all the things you do, what you've already
done. Might be Superman, Spiderman, Batman could, but it's not in me, I'm no
hero. I'm just a stubborn man who runs a hardware store. But I always liked
Susie. Nice girl. Terrific whistler. Susie's not going back nowhere."
Even a little bit younger, I'm sure I'd have been showing off for her, backed away
against the wall as she was, looking like a lady tied up for the dragon. But I
wasn't showing off for anybody right then, being almost as scared as I was angry.
Esau sighed -- very dramatic, very heavy. He said, "I did warn you. Nobody can
say I didn't warn you. You're my brother, after all."
I started to answer him, but I can't remember what I meant to say, because that
was when Esau hit me. Not with his fists, but with such a blast of -- I still don't
know what to call it ... hatred? Contempt? Plain meanness? -- that it knocked me
off my feet and right over my chair. For a moment I swear I thought I'd caught on
fire. My head wouldn't work; nothing worked; it was like every single string in
my body had been cut -- I couldn't even flop around on the floor. I didn't know
who I was. I didn't know what I was.
Susie screamed, and Esau hit me again. That time I did flop around, after I slid
across the floor and fetched up against the wall. To this day I can't honestly
explain how it felt -- been trying to describe it to myself for years. Best I can do
is that it wasn't like an electric shock, and it wasn't really like being burned, or
beaten up either, although I was all over bruises next day. It was more ... it was
more like he was unmaking me, like he was starting to take me apart, atom by
atom, molecule by molecule, so I wouldn't exist anymore -- I wouldn't ever have
existed, he'd never have had a brother. I could feel it happening, and I tell you,
I'll never be scared of anything again.
But I didn't die. I mean, I didn't get lost, the way he wanted me to. Susie ran to
me, but I managed to wave her off, because I didn't want her getting caught
between us. Esau went on hammering me with whatever it was he had that let him
smash planes out of the sky, trains off the tracks, set mudslides boiling down on
little mud villages. But it wasn't hurting me any more, not like it had been. I was
still me. He hadn't been able to make me not be, you understand?
I got my back against the wall and pushed myself up till I was on my feet. Took
more time than you might think -- I work, I don't work out -- and anyway Esau
just kept at me, like point-blank, coming close up to me now and knocking me this
way and that, one belt of crazy rage after another. I couldn't do much about it yet,
but he couldn't quite put me down again, either.
I did tell him to stop it. Same way he warned me, I told him to stop. But he
So I stopped him. Or the thing stopped him, the thing that had been rousing up in
me all this time, while he was whupping the daylights out of me. It burst out of
me like from a flamethrower, searing me -- mouth, throat, chest, guts -- way
worse than anything Esau'd done to me, and slamming me back against the wall
harder than he had. I couldn't see, and I couldn't hear a thing, and right that
moment, that's when I did think I was going to die. Looked forward to it, too, just
When my eyes cleared some -- ears took a lot longer -- I saw Esau lying on the
floor. He wasn't moving.
If it was just me, the way I was feeling, I'd likely have left him lying there till the
neighbors started complaining. But ... see, I already told you how Willa and me,
we were always supposed to watch over our baby brother -- protect him in those
schoolyard fights, make sure he did his homework, all that -- and I guess old
habits die hard. I said, "Esau? Esau?" and when he didn't answer, I tried to get to
him, but he seemed an awful long way off. Susie helped me. She'd been crying,
but she stopped, and she got me to Esau.
He was trying to sit up by the time we reached him, and we helped him onto his
feet in a while. He looked like pounded shit, excuse my French, what with his
nice shirt in rags, and that tie Susie liked gone, and an arm of his suit jacket
dangling by a few threads. I'd seen him wear that same jacket on the TV, I don't
know how many times. His face was gray. I don't mean pale, or white -- it was
gray like old cement, old grout, and it was like the gray went all the way through.
Susie and me, we might be the only people in the world ever saw him like that.
He actually tried to smile. He said, "I should have made you check your guns at
the door. Where on earth did you pick up that trick?"
"Just got pissed off," I said. "And I'll do worse if you're not out of here in two
minutes by Papa's watch. Susie stays."
Esau shrugged, or he tried to. "Got to catch a plane tomorrow, anyway. Back to
the old grindstone." He looked at Susie. She kind of edged behind my shoulder
some, and Esau's smile widened. He said, "Don't worry, my dear. You really
should have stayed dead, you know, but it's not your fault." He turned back
toward me. "Your doing, of course."
"Watching those folks pile in," I told him. My head was still ringing. "That
whole crew, all those people come to paint up your homecoming for the world to
see. Couldn't help thinking there ought to be someone like Susie there too. Like
Donnie Schmidt. I swear, I was just thinking on it."
"Glad it wasn't Donnie who showed up," Esau murmured. He tugged on the loose
arm of his ruined jacket; it came free, and he dropped it on the floor. "Sneaky old
Brother Jake," he said. "You've likely got more of the family inheritance than I
do. Just like in Papa's Bible, after all."
I was still feeling hollowed-out, burned-out, not by anything he'd done, but by
whatever it was I'd had to do. I said, "I can't let you go on, Esau."
He smiled. "You can't kill me, Jake. We both know you better than that."
"You might not know me well enough," I said. "Gone as long as you've been.
There's worse things than killing you. Maybe way worse."
And he saw. He looked into my eyes, for a change, and he saw what I had it in
mind to do. "You wouldn't dare," he said in a whisper. "You wouldn't dare."
"I wouldn't dare not do it," I answered him straight. "You're a time-bomb, Esau,
you're a loaded gun. Didn't matter before, when I could pretend I didn't really
know -- but now, if I don't take the bullets out of you, I'm as bad you are. Can't
see that I've got a choice."
He's Esau. He didn't beg, and he didn't bother with threatening. All he said was,
"It won't be easy for you. It's my life you're talking about. I'll fight you for it."
"I know you will," I said. "And you'll have a better chance than Donnie
"Or me," Susie said, standing right next to me. "Goodbye, Esau."
He gave her a different kind of smile than he'd given me -- practically kind,
practically real. It looked nice on him. He said, "Goodbye, Susie. See you on the
six o'clock." And he was away, that fast, vanished into the dark. I looked after
him for some while, then said what I had to say, and closed the door.
Susie had heard me, of course. "He always meant to be a good God," I told her.
"A good God, a good angel, whatever. Don't know how he got to be ... what he
Susie picked up Esau's torn-off sleeve and turned it around and around in her
hands, not looking at it, not looking at anything much. She said finally, "I read
once, in India they've got gods that are also demons. Depends on their mood, I
guess, or the time of year. Or maybe just their lunch."
"Well, I wasn't planning to go into the god business myself," I told her. "Really
wasn't looking to set up in competition with any Angel of Death. Piss-poor job,
you ask me. No benefits, no paid vacations. And damn sure no union."
Susie shook her head and laughed a little bit, but after that she got quiet again, and
sort of broody. By and by, she said, "There's a union. There's always been others
like you, Jake. The ones who mend the world."
"The world's no torn shirt," I said. My insides felt like they'd been scooped out,
dragged over gravel and put back. "I got a store to run." Susie looked at me,
didn't say anything. I said, "There's others like him out there, I don't know how
many. Can't stop them all." I put my hand on Susie's shoulder to steady myself.
Willa came in behind us in her bathrobe, looked around at the dining room, and
demanded, "What was all that tarryhooting around in here after we went to bed?
Did you and Esau get to wrestling or something?"
"Kind of," I mumbled. "Boys with beers. I'll clean up, I promise."
Willa shrugged. "Your house. I was just afraid you'd wake up the kids. Esau
already gone?" I nodded, and she peered at me in that older-sister way of hers.
"You sure nothing happened between you two?" She wasn't expecting an answer,
so I didn't have to fix one up. She studied Susie a lot more closely and carefully
than she'd done during dinner, and there wasn't any question what she was
thinking. But what Willa thinks and what Willa says never did spend a lot of time
together. This time she just said, "Good of you to take the time with Ben, Susie. I
was just frazzled out, dealing with those crazy TV people and Carol Ann."
"It's been some time since I've been around children," Susie said. "I like yours."
Willa said, "Stay the night, why don't you? It's late, and there's a spare bedroom
downstairs." As she left, she said over her shoulder, "And I make great Mexican
eggs. My husband loves them, and he's Mexican."
Susie looked at me. I said, "If you aren't worried about compromising your
reputation, that is, staying over in the house of a widower man. There's still folks
in this town would raise their eyebrows."
Susie laughed full-out then, for the first time. That was nice. She said, "I'm older
than I look."
What else? The network never ran that show, of course, what with one thing
another. Didn't get the chance. Seems like it all started turning bad for Esau, just
about then, slow but steady. That stock-option business. Those people who sued
the whole network about his fouled-up dirty-bomb story. The sexual harassment
charges. Those got settled out of court, like a bunch of other stuff, but there was a
mountain landing on his head and he couldn't duck it all. Still, he hung on like a
bullrider. He's almost as stubborn as I am. Almost.
Tell the truth, he might have ridden that bull all the way home, if he'd still been
selling the same kind of stories. But the things that had made him who he was, the
big disasters and the common-man nightmares, somehow there just weren't as
many of them as there had been. The news got smaller, and so did he.
Did I feel bad? Interesting, you asking me that. Yeah, I did feel bad for him, I
couldn't help it. I still wonder how he felt when he woke up -- the morning after
the night he told the country all about those Kansas cult-murders, with the ritual
mutilating and all -- only it turned out they hadn't ever happened, even though
he'd made them up just as pretty and scary as all the other lies he'd always made
real. How's the Angel of Death supposed to do his job with clipped wings?
I got a call in the store that day. Picked up on the second ring, but when I said
hello there wasn't anybody on the line.
The guns were the last straw. The automatics and the Uzis and whatever in his
office, in the dressing-room, those were bad enough, the tabloids had a field day
with those. But trying to go through Los Angeles airport security with a pistol
butt just sticking out of his coat pocket ... lord, that did him in. Network hustled
him out of there so fast, his desk was smoking behind him. That wasn't me, by the
way, all those guns. That was just the state he was in by then. Poor Esau. All
those years jumping off things, he still never did learn how to land.
Or maybe I should have chosen my words better as he walked away that night.
Probably would have, if I'd had more time. All I knew then was I had to speak up
before he did. Jam my foot in the door.
"My brother thinks he's an angel," I'd said. "He thinks he can change anything in
the world just by saying so. But that's crazy. He can't do that."
Didn't know what else to say. Might have had a little too much what we used to
call english on it, but I done what I could.
Lord, don't I wish I had a movie of you for the last half-hour or so, the way you've
been looking at me. You'd get to keep that, anyway, even though there won't be
nothing on your tape tomorrow, nor nothing in your memory. Couple of hours,
you couldn't even find this house again, same as your editor won't ever remember
giving out this assignment. Because nobody talks about my brother anymore.
Nobody's talked about him in years. And it's a sad thing, some ways, because
being Esau Robbins every night, everywhere, six o'clock ... that mattered to him.
Being the Angel of Death, that mattered to him. They were the only things that
ever filled him, you understand me? That's all he ever could do in his life, my
poor damn brother -- get even with us, with people, for being alive. And I took
all that away. Stole his birthright and shut down the life he built with it. That
don't balance the scales, nor make up for all he did, but it's going to have to do.
Esau Robbins no longer exists. He's not dead. He's just ... gone. Maybe someday
I'll go and look for him, like an older brother should, but right now gone is how it
stays. Price of the pottage.
Thanks for the Blanton's, young man. Puts a smile on my face, and even though it
isn't her drink Susie will certainly applaud your thoughtfulness.
You'll likely be finding a bonus in your next paycheck. Nobody in accounting
will be able to explain why -- and you sure as hell won't, either -- but just you
roll with it.