My older brother Len's off his meds again. I've felt his breakdown coming the last couple of days, though my father hasn't wanted to face up to it yet. This morning Len came into my bedroom and looked at one of my paintings on the wall, something I'd done in art school, an abstract southwestern landscape sort of thing, and not all that great. He stared at it, riveted, his eyes tearing up. "That's the most beautiful painting I've ever seen," he said. "That should be in the Dallas Museum of Art. That should be in the Louvre." With his strong arms, he drew me to his chest. "I can feel that horse between my thighs. That's me with the lance in my hands." He moved closer to the painting, eyes round and shiny. "No, I'm both. I'm the Comanche and the one being chased. God, that's brilliant! You're a genius!" I stared at my painting, but hard as I tried I could not see a single Comanche. At least I had not consciously included an Indian in the painting. There was only the prairie rolling away to the distance, and some trees and boulders and lots of colorful swirls. He released me from his embrace, then gripped both my hands and held them in his calloused palms. "Don't do manual labor with these," he said. "Don't be like me. I'll send you money when you need it."
He disappeared for the day, and now he's surfaced late at night, and we sit at the kitchen table as he sips whiskey, a vain attempt to calm himself. Every few seconds, his hand opens and shuts like a man giving blood. Len's thirty-two, I'm twenty-five, but since he started having his bipolar disorder a few years ago, I feel like the older brother. He moved back home with my father a few months ago, and I'm back home this summer after grad school, trying to get my bearings and move on.
He squints his eyes, cocks an ear, listening for something, listening maybe for the sounds of the horses' hooves, the horses carrying the Comanches back through time into a moonlight raid on our house in the hilly suburbs north of Austin. Len had a thing about the Comanches, even when we were kids; in a kind of love and hate he'd talk in awe of them as the greatest horse warriors who ever lived. He's been staying up all night this week, reading Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove trilogy, James Michener's Texas, and my mother's roots material about our family's frontier days, devouring thousands of pages of the novels and the family lore, apparently not the best reading material if you're manic.
I take a breath, trying to steady my voice when I speak. "Listen, Len," I say, "I talked to Dr. Wilson."
He lurches back as if stabbed, eyes widening at the mention of Dr. Wilson, the psychiatrist whom he's seen off and on for the last few years. "That old hack?" he says. "Doctor Electrode? You got anybody else on the list? I mean, Kenneth, really..." He leans in close, breathing his whisky breath in my face, eyes turning squinty and wizened, like a con man working a deal. "Do we have any back up? Do we have a fucking plan here or not?"
"I should drive you down to the hospital, Len. You know, just get checked out."
His voice edges into bitterness. "You mean checked in? Whose side are you on, Kenneth? Whose side?"
I feel my throat tightening. "I'm on your side, Len, you know that."
He takes another swig from his whiskey glass. "Hey, I'm feeling good. I can handle this. This will all be gone in the morning. We'll play golf. Do you want to play golf in the morning? Because I plan to play golf in the morning, and I'd like you to come." He smiles too widely. "It'll be great, playing golf with you again." He cackles with sudden laughter. "I'm not carrying your bag anymore! Remember the way you used to make me carry your bag when you got tired? You're old enough to carry your own damn bag this time!"
I sit there, not answering, until he demands, "So do you want to play golf or not?"
I shrug my shoulders. "Sure, Len, whatever."
He lets out a long breath between tight lips, and leans in, eyes anxious. "Seriously, do I seem a little weird or something?"
"Oh not, not at all. You don't seem weird at all, Len."
His shoulders shake with quiet laughter as he gets the sarcasm, knowing I think he's being weird as hell, but the opening allows me to tell him the truth. "Len, I think you're having an episode. We've got to get some help."
He lowers his head, contemplates the suggestion for a moment, considers the weeks ahead in the hospital, the medications, and he sits back, squaring his shoulders as if to ward off something coming at him too fast and hard. "It happened here," he says in a hushed voice. "Right here. Close your eyes. Listen."
I stare at him, until he hisses, "Close your eyes."
I close my eyes, and I hear a faint wind against the windows. I hear his breathing, a heavy agitated sound. I hear the tinkle of ice in his glass. "Do you hear it?" he asks. I keep my eyes closed. "Hear what, Len? Hear what?"
I open my eyes. His lips tremble with excitement. "Do you get it now?" he asks. "It happened here, right here. Mother knew. She hinted at it. She was going to break it to me first. She knew I was the only one who could handle it."
"What are you talking about?"
"Her roots stuff she was always looking into. Great-great Uncle Ira, the one who fought the Comanches?"
"I don't remember anything about it."
"God, how could I have missed it? Can't you hear the screaming? People died here. That's what she was trying to tell me. The house is full of spirits. It always has been."
I shake my head. "I just hear the wind, Len. It's just the wind."
He smiles, nods his head with the pretend patience of one dealing with a slow-learning child. "Remember the arrowheads we found when we were kids?"
"Mom said those were from a peaceful tribe."
"Of course she would tell you that. She tried to protect you." He leans in close, eyes gouging into mine, his voice a rapid, hoarse whisper. "She knew. She referred to a ranch not far from here. A ranch where Uncle Ira lived with his wife and son. But it was here. Our house is built right over the bloody soil. This is where they fought and died." "In the kitchen?" I rock back in my chair, creating a little more space between us. "Holy shit, Len, you're freaking the hell out of me."
He stares at me, eyes glittering. "They killed his wife and made off with the little boy. He grew up with the Comanches, but he was ransomed back. Only he was never the same. He was wild. He could never adjust." Len's been hiding something in his lap and now he brings it up onto the table, a butcher knife from one of our kitchen drawers. "They were up in the hills watching. Then they rode in. It was pure adrenaline back then, Kenneth. Late at night, listening, wondering if this was the night they'd punch your ticket. It's coming clear to me now. My God, it all makes sense now."
He presses the point of the knife against the Formica table and spins it. He clasps it during its wobbly rotation. "I like knives," he says. "Do you like knives?"
"They're okay," I say, hearing the quiver in my voice. "I kind of like butter knives. Do you want me to get you a butter knife?"
"I've always liked sharp knives," he says. "The beauty, the power, the symmetry." He tests the air with the blade. Short and thick-muscled, Len's a pretty tough guy from his years of construction work and studying the martial arts. He's let his hair get shaggy and his ragged beard has got some streaks of blood or ketchup in it. He stands and swoops around the kitchen, doing deep knee bends, coming up, sweeping the air with the knife. "Come at me," he whispers to an imaginary enemy.
We hear a cough in the hallway, a clearing of a throat, and Len's face suddenly changes. He retreats to his chair at the kitchen table, and as if some calming wax has been spread over his features, his wild eyes sink inward, his agitated brow seals into a smooth surface, and with a quick motion he hides the knife beneath his shirt.
"You boys are up late," my father says, wandering in his old bathrobe into the kitchen, going to the sink for a glass of water. Maybe my father's seen the knife, but he doesn't let on. I think he tells himself he hasn't seen it.
Since my mother's death a year ago, he wears an eternally fragile, bewildered expression. He sleeps poorly, in his tattered bathrobe moves about the house like a ghost, checking doors and windows in the night. Lately, for the first time I can remember, he seems troubled by his Korean War experiences. He never talked about the war when we were growing up, and even now he says little, but sometimes he gets a far away look. A couple of mornings ago he stood at the sliding glass door, looking at our large, well-cared for backyard, and he said to himself, quite clearly and distinctly, continuing an interior conversation, "He's been dead all these years. He never had a chance."
I joined him at the glass door and asked him whom he was referring to. My father didn't start a family until he was older than usual, and even when we were kids, he kept his distance in a detached, kindly sort of way. But he likes being asked questions, and he always responds politely, even generously.
"Bill Richards," he said. "One of my friends in Korea." He took off his glasses and rubbed at his tired eyes. "Not my best friend. But a good friend. A sweet guy. Not a mean bone in his body. Nineteen when he got killed. I woke up thinking about him. I've been alive all this time and he never had a chance. He was just getting started." He made a kind of waving gesture out at the backyard, as if to indicate all the things in life that Bill Richards never got to experience.
He put his glasses back on. "When did that get so dirty?" he asked. His eyes had focused on the birdbath near the patio. "When did the birds decide to poop all over that?"
My father's become more philosophical and introspective since my mother died. He goes to daily Mass, and I go with him sometimes. He likes the 6:30 dawn special. The priest doesn't fart around at that hour; he gets the crew in and out in thirty minutes. Everybody there beside me is old, and they look beat up. With stiff hips they hobble up for communion. But I admire them. They endure. They go on.
My father sits down with us at the kitchen table, pulling up a chair between Len and me. "What were you talking about?"
Len pinches his lips shut. He clams up around my father. Afraid he'll give away his secret. That he's losing it again. My father's always the one who ends up signing the hospital papers.
"We were talking about the frontier days," I tell my father. "The Comanches."
"Oh," my father says. "That sure was a long time ago. Do you boys remember when this house was first built, all the mud instead of grass?"
"It wasn't so long ago, Dad," Len says with a quaver in his voice. "It wasn't so long ago. Do we have to pretend it never happened? Do we have to ignore the dead Indian on the table?"
My father blinks and squints at the table as if looking for the dead Indian, and Len's hand reaches out to clutch my father's robe near his throat. My father's pale, skinny chest seems to pulse. Len stares in wonder at the robe, running the fabric between his fingers. "That's the most beautiful robe I've ever seen, Dad."
My father chuckles. "This old thing?" But he sounds faintly pleased by the compliment.
Len's eyes mist over. "You're a beautiful man, Dad. You break my heart. You're Saint Francis of Assissi. I just want to take you in my arms and hold you."
My father draws his robe tighter about him, easing away from Len. "Say, let's have some pie," he says. "As long as we're up."
"That's a great idea, Dad." I follow him to the refrigerator. "Dad," I whisper, "I told you so. Len's having an episode."
My father leans in and out of the fridge and hands me an aluminum dish with some congealed peach pie in it. "Should we have some ice cream, too? Do you want to get some bowls, Kenneth?"
As my father ladles ice cream over the wedges of pie, Len's poised at the table. Listening. Watching us. Prepared to bolt.
We bring the bowls back to the table and my father sits between Len and me. "Didn't your mother have something about the Comanches in her roots stuff?" my father asks. "She used to love that old stuff, but I could never get very worked up about it. I wish I'd paid more attention to it now, for her sake."
"You're damn right she had stuff about the Comanches," Len says, his voice cracking with righteous indignation. "You're damn right she did! They came howling out of the hills, dragged Uncle Ira into the night, cut off his balls and staked him out on the plains."
My father swallows a big lump of pie. "My God," he says, "I never knew that."
"You had to read between the lines. They killed his wife and made off with his son. Uncle Ira survived. But he went crazy. He rode after them, became a vigilante. He did terrible things. Burned their villages. Killed women and children. He became a horror even to himself."
My father stares into space, holding his spoon in mid-air. Then he says, a little sadly, "Well, it was all a long time ago, Len."
"By the time they found the boy, nobody recognized him. Even his own father, Uncle Ira. The boy didn't know where he belonged anymore. He had a raccoon for a pet, but it got rabies and died. Uncle Ira disappeared in the Gold Rush. The boy became an outlaw, then a sheriff, or he was a sheriff and then an outlaw. Mother wasn't clear about that. She always wanted a happy ending. Finally he just disappeared too. You could read between the lines."
We look at Len and we realize there are tears splashed on his cheeks. My father touches Len's hand. "You miss your mother. I've been missing her too. All that roots stuff. It makes you think of her."
Len springs back from his touch, then smashes his fist down on the table. "Are you both out of your minds?" he screams at us. "Don't you understand anything I've been trying to tell you? Stop pretending you don't know what happened here!"
"My God, Len, easy, son," my father says. He reaches out to embrace Len, but Len shouts, "I will not abide it! This is an outrage! An outrage!"
He pushes my father away and ducks out the sliding glass door into the backyard. We follow him into the thick heat of a full moon's summer night in Texas. My father raises his hand to his mouth and bites at the flesh between his thumb and index finger. "Oh God, not again," he mutters. "Not again." He puts out his hand, tries to catch up with Len, who has retreated towards the flowerbed at the far side of the lawn.
"Watch it, Dad, Len's got a knife."
"He wouldn't hurt us. He doesn't have a mean bone in his body."
"We've got to get him to the hospital, Dad, before something happens."
"Len?" my father shouts across the lawn. "Len?" His voice sounds like something cracking in two.
Len strides back and forth on the far side of the lawn, near the flowerbed. We cross the yard, huge shadows floating before us.
"Wow!" he says happily. "Fireflies!" He grabs our shoulders like a school kid with his buddies. "Look at all the fireflies, you guys! Don't you love fireflies? God, I love fireflies!"
My father and I look around as Len points. "There! Over there! Do you remember putting them in jars, Kenneth? Putting them in jars in a dark room and they glowed?" He lightly punches my arm. "But you always made me let them go. You were so smart. You were so sensitive. God, I adore you. You're the best person I know. You are too, Dad. You're the best person I know. There's something sexy about you. I don't mean that in any weird sort of way."
My father rubs the side of his face, as if wondering if he's missed a shave. "I don't know why we don't have fireflies like we used to," he says. "We used to have fireflies all over the place, and we'd come out here, all of us, and your mother..."
Len chuckles as if listening to a child. "Don't be silly, Dad. We still have fireflies. Look at them! They're everywhere!"
My father and I stand in the warm, humid air; the yard looks much the same as always, the expanse of neat lawn, the flowerbed, the oak trees with their huge branches, the shrubs back by the alley, and the only thing amiss with the picture is that there aren't any fireflies. Not a one. If I were to paint the scene, I would have to imagine the fireflies.
"Don't you see them? Don't you see them?" He steps between us and looks desperately at us, as if we're playing a trick on him. "Are you guys blind?"
"Len," my father says heavily. He frowns down at his feet, his next words seeming to leak out of his mouth one by one. "We've got to do something about this, son."
Len recoils from us, making a cross with his fingers as if warding off a vampire. His shadow lengthens. As he whirls around to run, he stumbles and it gives me time to catch him. I try to tackle him, but he's twice as strong. He sends me flying. My father takes hold of his arm, but Len throws him to the ground. He pins my father's chest with his tennis-shoed foot. The knife comes out from underneath his shirt and he bends and holds it to my father's throat. "Don't make me kill you," he says. "Just ride off."
I ease myself towards them, afraid to come too fast. Afraid to startle him. I find my voice cracking. "Please, Len, it's Dad. It's Dad, Len."
He looks up at me, as if through a mesh screen, in the full moonlight blinking to get me in focus. His eyes fill with tears and he shudders and drops the knife, and I move in quickly to take it away and throw it up on the patio. He embraces my father, wedging his hands under my father's armpits and pulling him into a sitting position. "I'm sorry, Daddy. I'm sorry," he weeps. "Help me, Daddy. God help me."
"I will, son. I will." He cradles Len's head. "My sweet boy..."
"I can work through this, Daddy. Everything will be fine. You'll see. I'm playing golf in the morning. Just like old times. Like normal."
My father shakes his head, his voice coming out in a moan. "It's not normal, Len. Nothing's normal right now."
Len grips my father's arms, his blunt fingers digging into the flesh, his eyes wide and frightened. "I won't make it home this time, Daddy." He hangs his head. "Don't leave me there. Don't forget me."
My father's voice grows stronger. "We'll never forget you, Len. We'll make it home. I promise."
"I won't go back." He shoves my father away, and my father rocks back in the blue shadowed grass, thin pale legs beneath his bathrobe swinging up in the air like a rising see-saw.
I dive at Len, but he breaks for it. At the far side of the lawn, he springs nimbly over the chain-link fence into Mr. Robinson's backyard. My father sits up with a start, as if an alarm clock has blared in his ear. "The Doberman!" he cries.
Mr. Robinson's automatic floodlights click on and illuminate his yard. I help my father up and we hurry after Len to the fence, in time to see the Doberman, old Jeeter, eighteen now, go into his Hound of the Baskervilles' act. With the guttural snarl of an enraged drillmaster, he staggers stiff-legged across his turf. He's a horrid looking thing, one-eyed, with scabby patches of orange-tinted medicated fur. The old dinosaur moves on memory. One last glorious mission. One last neighborhood ass to chew.
As old Jeeter bares his teeth and hunches his shoulders to leap at Len, Len gives an ear splitting karate cry, reminscent of a man being skewered alive, and launches a sidekick at Jeeter's head. He misses, but Jeeter yelps in fear. Tangling his legs in the retreat, Jeeter rolls like a flipped wrestler, but rage gives him youth and he springs back at Len, who yells, "Yow!" and breaks for the trampoline. He jumps up on it, and Jeeter yaps proudly as Mr. Robinson, in his bathrobe, perennial drink in hand, comes out on the flagstone patio. He observes Len bounce up and down on the trampoline, and he gives my father and me a friendly wave.
"Hoo boy," Mr. Robinson says with a chuckle. "Calm down, Jeeter, you old asshole. Don't give yourself a stroke."
Jeeter stops yapping, but he patrols the perimeter of the trampoline while Len bounds up and down, going higher and higher. "Hi there, Mr. Robinson," Len calls from mid-air.
"Howdy, Len. You know, I don't know if that old tramp will hold you any more. Mostly just the grandkids use it now." He pauses, cracks ice between his teeth. "Little guys."
Len tucks, lands on his butt, bounces back to his feet. "Feels okay."
Mr. Robinson chuckles. He's got a way of cracking ice in his teeth and talking at the same time. "Glad to know it's held up. It just sits out in the rain. I think the kids oil the springs sometimes when they're in town."
"Hey there, John," my father calls. We lean over the chain-link fence and wave at Mr. Robinson.
"Hey there, Tom, Kenneth." While Jeeter stands guard over Len, Mr. Robinson joins us at the fence. His bathrobe, a thick, creamy beige, is in much better shape than my father's. He's a bullish looking man of seventy-two, with thick white calves beneath the robe.
My father clears his throat. "I'm mighty sorry to disturb you, John. We've got a kind of situation going on with Len again."
Mr. Robinson swings his head around to study Len bouncing high on the tramp, legs spread-eagled at the top of his flight. "I suspected that, Tom. Well, Len's welcome to bounce all night if it helps. Anything I can do?"
My father sighs. "Thank you, John. We're mighty obliged. He'll calm down and then we'll drive him to the hospital. He'll be ready to go."
"Come on over. Old Jeeter won't bite you. This has really sparked him up. He hasn't chased one of your boys in years."
I start to climb the fence and Mr. Robinson chuckles and cracks ice in his teeth. "You can use the gate now, Ken."
We go out our side gate and through Mr. Robinson's into his yard and we shake hands. His big hand engulfs mine and I feel my knuckles pop a little when he squeezes.
"How's Annie, John?" my father asks.
Mr. Robinson gets a tight sound in his throat. "Not so good, Tom. Not so good."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
He shrugs, the collar of his bathrobe shifting a little around his broad neck. "You know the score, Tom. You fellas want a drink?"
"No thanks, John. We'll just wait here."
"I'm going to check on Annie. She's restless tonight."
Mr. Robinson goes inside to check on his wife. I eye old Jeeter, but he looks nervous to be left alone with us. He retreats to the patio and hides under the swinging bench.
"Look at this!" Len calls. He bounces high and turns a flip, landing neatly on his feet.
"My God, Len, don't do that," my father says. "Do you want to hurt yourself?"
"I'm good," Len says. "Aren't I good?"
"Sure. But you don't need too prove anything."
"Drumroll please." He launches another flip. He stumbles as he lands, running forward a couple of steps, but stopping before he falls. "Tuh dah!" He holds his arms aloft, the Olympic winner on display.
Mr. Robinson appears with a fresh drink. "Len, you're going to give my insurance agent a fit."
Len talks to my father as he bounces. "How come you didn't give me gymnastics lessons when I was a kid? I could have amounted to something."
"I didn't know you wanted gymnastics classes."
"I did, but I just didn't know it back then."
"Would you like to come down and have a scotch, Len?" Mr. Robinson asks. "Or maybe some milk? Buttermilk? Maybe we got some old buttermilk around here, in a jar someplace. I fancy a nice cold drink of buttermilk now and then myself..." He frowns at his glass, jostles the liquid around a little and murmurs, "Though this works in a pinch."
"I could have been a flying Wallenda!" The springs creak in the old trampoline as Len flies higher and higher. He pulls his knees up, tucks his head to flip.
"No, Len!" my father cries.
He doesn't get all the way around, but crashes on his neck and shoulder. He lets out a moan and curls into a ball.
"Len!" Dad shouts. "Are you hurt, son?"
"Aw hell, Tom, you're going to clean me out," Mr. Robinson says with profound resignation. "I'll call my insurance agent. There goes the boat." He sighs, shakes the ice in his glass around. "Shit. I wanted to leave something to the kids."
I jump on the trampoline to help Len, but he rolls over the springs to the ground. Clutching his neck like a man waking up with a terrific charley-horse, he lurches over the lawn, falls into the swimming pool, and sinks straight to the bottom.
I do a moon-walk to the other side of the tramp and jump hard to the ground, falling and skinning my knees. As I pull my T-shirt over my head, my father pinches my arms with skinny strong fingers. "Don't! He'll drag you down!" He kneels on the edge of the pool and puts his face near the water and shouts, "Get up here right now, Len! I mean it!"
"I've got a long pole here someplace," Mr. Robinson says. "A cleaning net. I think I can hook him."
I jump in, feet first. When I sink down to the bottom, I see Len doing a kind of underwater ballet act. In a bluish light, he pirouettes, spreads his arms, operatic, Romeo beckoning to Juliet. His hair's blown back in the water. When he sees me, his eyes widen as if a fearsome creature has swum into God's glorious lagoon. He slugs me in the jaw and leaps on me. A long pole pokes into the back of my neck and a net wraps around my face. Len gets me in a headlock and kicks us toward the surface. He's seventeen again. A lifeguard once more. The best in the neighborhood. The best everything.
He drags me out and throws me on the tiles bordering the pool. He frees my face from the cleaning net, begins to administer CPR, but then jumps back in horror. His finger traces the long scar on my chest from my heart surgery when I was a child.
"They cut his heart out!" he shrieks.
As Len runs for the street side of the corner lot, Jeeter streaks out from under the swinging bench like a torpedo released from its chute. Len's a step ahead as he hits the fence. He leaps to hurdle it and howls as he lands. He's caught on the fence, straddling it, while Jeeter gnaws at his jeans. Len topples free and limps into the night, running beneath the full moon, a crazed scout turned loose on the neighborhood.
Mr. Robinson holds his cleaning net like a lance. "Well, this has been a hell of a night," he says.
He leads us to the gate. Old Jeeter struts behind. He growls low in his throat, gives me a last malevolent glare. Next time, punk, he warns. Next time.
Mr. Robinson shakes my father's hand. "Good luck, Tom. Come back for a drink sometime. Don't be a stranger, Ken."
An apparition appears on the lawn. A woman all in white, aglow in the moonlight.
"Are the boys home?" a trembling voice calls. "Is it the boys?" She opens her arms to us, her white nightgown full of billowy loose folds.
"Oh hell," Mr. Robinson mutters. "Go inside, Annie," he calls. "Go inside." He gives me a sudden, forceful hug, drawing me into a thick neck scented with aftershave. "Go find him, Kenneth. Find him!"
He turns to comfort his wife. She's on her knees, sobbing near the trampoline, and he lifts her gently under the arms and leads her inside.
We back my father's sedan out of the garage. I drive in my wet clothes, and my father pulls his bathrobe tighter about his throat.
We prowl the neighborhood. It's a nicely established neighborhood now, new when I was growing up, a mix of ranch and two-story brick houses. One house up the block has white columns in front, but it has always stood out as pretentious.
We catch glimpses of Len hiding behind trees, darting down alleyways. Our headlights zoom in on him as he crouches behind some trash cans. He shields his eyes with his arm, then runs.
He crosses Bandera Road into a rough part of town. Shotgun homes. Peeling paint. Broken machinery in the yards. The oaks and willows press hard to the road, branches untrimmed, and our lights sweep into the shrubbery alongside the houses, probe into the secret places.
A new brick apartment building has gone up. It has a gentrified look, an attempt to reclaim this part of town. But a keg party's underway on the balustrade and revelers spill in and out of open doorways.
My father adjusts the flaps of his robe over his thighs. "When did this all happen?" he asks. "When did it all happen?"
Our headlights catch up with Len as he races across a weedy, vacant lot. Deer-like, he freezes a moment before sprinting off again, and for a moment I feel like I enter his world. One oak ahead in the distance. A lone runner on the prairie, arms raised to take an arrow in the back, the hooves of the horses pounding after him.