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Blood On Blood

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When they were still kids, they snuck down to the swimming hole and did the things that boys do together. Or at least the things that boys joke about other boys doing. Joe had heard some of the kids talking, and it didn't occur to him till much later to worry that even if other boys did those things, they didn't do them with their own brothers. He and his brother never did anything in the house because he knew they'd catch hell if Dad ever caught them -- well, Frankie would catch hell, and Joe would get his mother's tears and his father's disgust for letting his brother lead him astray.

Looking back, Joe can't explain why it happened, nor why he still thinks about it when he's alone and even sometimes when Maria crawls on top of him. It's the one trigger that never fails him -- remembering Frank's hands and mouth, his ease with his own body, his lack of shame. Now Joe thinks maybe Frank decided none of it counted because they both always knew where it stopped. If either one of them had wanted more, neither ever said so.

Frank called half the guys in school jackoffs and faggots, and he had girls much younger than Joe did -- had, in fact, lost his virginity before Joe did -- but Frank never ridiculed what they did together the way he ridiculed everything else. When they got old enough finally to understand all the implications, they reached a silent agreement never to speak of it. Neither one mentioned the swimming hole again, not even on hot summer nights when the air closed in and tried to smother the life out of them.

Joe wonders whether Frank ever thinks about it, and if he's ashamed. He doubts it. Frank wasn't ever ashamed of much. Sorry about some things maybe, like stealing Joe's driver's license to buy Jim Beam and calling Joe to bail him out after shooting at cows on a local farm. And trying to fuck Maria, back before she and Joe were engaged, even though Frank was drunk and Maria said no and Frankie listened to her.

Joe had been so happy that Maria didn't want to, but he thinks now that if she had, he would have gotten over it. It would have been painful afterward, trying to have Frank over at the house, but he still would have loved her and Frank just the same. He sometimes wonders if Maria has any regrets or at least wonders what it would have been like, but he knows she's also a little bit afraid of Frank, and just as happy that he has a girl. Maria calls Dorothy Frank's "little masochist." Frank calls Dorothy his "little sister." The irony of that is not lost on Joe, though of course he doesn't mention it.

He hopes his brother plans to marry the girl who's having his baby, but for now it's enough that Frankie has come home. That's why he's here tonight, drunk on the porch of a house he's supposed to be protecting from trespassers, listening to his brother go on about Indian runners. No point in arguing with Frank that an Indian runner would have been eaten by wolves or grizzlies. Frank says, "Independent of time and space, the runner becomes his message." A wolf or a bear can't eat a message.

Joe thinks Frank probably made up the legend but he understands why -- he understands the point all too clearly. He understood it as soon as his brother pulled back into town, out of his mind in the house where they grew up together, playing with guns with the same nonchalance as he'd play with his own cock. Joe had been scared shitless of what Frank would do.

"I get it," says Joe now. "I know you think that way. I still love you." Frankie sticks out his tongue but Joe needs to get it out, the awful thing. "Dad finally did something you respect."

Laying back with the stick he's been waving around, Frank mimes blowing his brains out. The spread of his long fingers around the thick pole and the jolt of his body create the impression of jacking off. It's all wrong, the way Frank's laughter is all wrong. Joe turns away, looks out at the cornfield, and realizes that's all wrong too. His farm is unloved and dying.

And Frank believes Joe when he says the farm looked better when he had it, because Frank knows what Joe's hands can do. "You had the fire in you!" Frank tells him. For a minute Joe isn't sure it's the farm he's talking about. But they don't talk about the swimming hole, even though Joe has wondered if that was part of what damaged Frank so badly. If maybe Frankie loved him even more than Joe loved him back, and got so restless because Joe could never love him enough.

Joe and Frankie have always had a secret language, silly rhymes that they play off each other. No one else ever thought it was funny, not even their parents, though Maria and Dorothy have both heard them use it and just screwed up their faces and shook their heads. "I burned," says Joe, and Frank says, "They took what you earned," and Joe says, "Lesson learned," and they laugh together. And Joe blurts out how much he has missed that, laughing with Frank, and for a minute it's like when they were so young that they didn't know enough not to tell each other what they wanted.

I burned, Joe thinks, like a fire in a field of crops, and someone could have gotten hurt. Maybe someone did get hurt. He sees Frank in a blaze of afternoon light, filtered through the fog of memory yet vivid, laughing as he peeled his clothes off to plunge into the water. Frankie pointed fingers like revolvers at Joe and made a popping noise and Joe fell into the swimming hole, splashing and laughing until his brother caught him in his arms and danced around with him, kicking his feet to keep them afloat. So easy to fall in, that summer, and the light was everywhere. The world was warmer. I burned, Joe thinks, not knowing whether Frank gave him the fire or got scorched by it.

There's a sudden crash, then darkness. Frank has smashed the porch bulb with the stick, now his dancing partner. When he asks why, Joe realizes that he already knows. Frank turns to him with eyes gleaming like a wolf. "I'm an Indian runner," he declares. "I'm a message." He calls Joe a big bear, bets that he can't find him, and runs off into the night, into the cornfield, whooping the way he did when he pelted Joe's car with snowballs the morning he got back from 'Nam.

Then, he was running away. Now Joe knows that he wants to be found, brought back and given roots. Nurtured. "I'll get you," he promises, and races into the field, already winded from the beer and the hot close heat of the night. He can hear Frank running, can smell his sweat drifting back to him over the corn. Could probably catch him, but doesn't really try. Wants to give Frank this victory.

"You win," he calls. "You're a message." Frankie approaches through the corn, grinning ear to ear. And they hold each other. As Frank's fingers plant themselves in Joe's hair, it's years earlier and nothing irrevocable has happened and the farm is Joe's dream and Frank never left and the connection is right there the way it always was, the way it is again. "The message is, never trust a bear," Joe says breathlessly, and knocks his brother to the ground, tickling him while laughter wells helplessly in both their throats, falling with him like diving into water.

Frank is so strong but so thin, ribs jutting underneath the hard layer of muscle, taut as an unripe vegetable and just as fragile. Desperate for sunlight and water and care. He doesn't try to stop the hands tormenting him but anchors himself against the upheaval. When his mouth comes up very suddenly and fastens on Joe's, and his arms lock around him, there's no struggle. No wrongness. It's a homecoming, a harvest. Frank's limbs are still stiff and he shudders once as if he's cold, but he's with Joe now, open to him, holding on.

Tears run down Joe's cheeks, warm spring rain, spilling onto Frank, thawing him. Joe feels his brother's hands in his hair and on his back, grasping at him, a starving man clutching armfuls of abundance. He smells of dirt and dark fertile soil. The ticklish thrashes of his body ease into undulating ripples, and his neck arches the way a growing shoot will curve toward the sun. Slowly Frank yields under Joe's hands, resistant yet pliable like hard ground at first planting.

And Joe knows what Frank needs, knows it in his blood the way he has always known how to coax vegetables from the earth. Knows he must get his hands dirty, use his spit, work the clay with all his skill. He moves in the rhythm of digging, planting, the same muscles aching from plunging the hoe, sinking the shovel. Terribly familiar, intimate feelings overwhelm him, memories of past seasons overlaying the present -- scent of sweat and fertilizer, crouching over hidden holes in the teeming darkness, tracing roots, bud, stalk. He hears the sound of his own breath and Frank's. All around them the corn sways, bending in the wind but holding firm, holding strong.

Hope blossoms and swells in Joe like the rounded ripe fruit-shapes in his hands. Live, he pleads silently. Grow up, grow strong. Frank's teeth tear at his skin but he doesn't care, wills his brother to take whatever he needs from him. He feels the pulse throb in Frank's veins, feels Frank come over his hand, slick swollen bursting seed-pod smelling of grass and flower, wet and hot as July spread on his own skin. Joe plows into Frank, filling him until he is utterly depleted, and still he holds on, whispering, "Live. Live."

"You ain't lost it, brother," Frank says in a strange voice when they've both recovered enough breath, and Joe rolls to the side, collapsing on the ground that they've crushed and marked. "I never let anyone do that. Not in jail. Not in 'Nam."

"Fuck, Frankie." Joe's brother releases a high-pitched giggle. "Did I hurt you?"

"Nothing you can put out that I can't take." Frank laughs again. "I'm fucked up." He says it as if it's a wonderful joke, and he takes Joe's sticky fingers in his, squeezing them too hard, bruising and painful. "I'm trying, really I am. Hey, what do you say we go on a road trip, before summer's over?"

"Road trip?" Frank's words aren't making any sense to Joe, who's still shaking and trying to hold onto Frank and feeling like he's slipping through his fingers like grain pouring out of a silo. That he has to keep Frank talking is the one thing he knows for sure. "What do you mean?"

"We could get out of town! Go to Atlantic City or something. Lose the ball and chain for a couple of weeks. What do you say?"

"Out of town?" It's as if Frank is speaking a different language, one that Joe can't understand, the way other people don't get the way he and Frank talk to each other. "Frank, I have a job. You have a job. I have a child. You're going to have one too."

"That's why we've got to do this now!" Frank rolls onto his side, turning a smile so bright on Joe that his teeth gleam in the dark and his eyes flare yellow, like a wolf. "Before the baby comes. Just for a few days. Just to get away. Just us, man." The manic smile fades, and for a moment Joe sees the face of his baby brother, a wounded angel falling so fast no one could stop him. "Don't you want to?"

Joe thinks about the fact that he's only got three vacation days left for the whole damn summer. Three days he'd planned on spending with his son and his wife, maybe at the lake -- days on the beach with Raffael and nights with Maria away from the tedium of the house. She isn't sure about having another baby yet but Joe wants Raffael to have a brother so much, close in age like him and Frankie, and Joe is sure he could talk her into it if they could just get away for a little while. If he can't have a farm, maybe he can spend his weekends with his whole family, doing what he does best with the people he loves best, all of them. Nothing feels better than blood on blood.

He wants to explain this to Frank -- wants to make him see that they have to think of the whole family now -- his family and Frank's, their children who will grow up together and their women who'll be friends, and it won't ever be as lonely as it was for Frank and Joe. He wants to show Frankie that he'd do anything to save him and this is the only way, not to run like an Indian but to be slow and steady, even if it's a bear. And if they have nights like this when the past springs up from the ground, it will be like a secret whispered in the breeze between the cornstalks, bending but not breaking them.

He wants to say all this, but Frank is already turning away, pushing to his feet, pulling his clothes into place over the hundreds of tattooed lines on his body, a walking masterpiece of graffiti and scars. "I get it," he says, and it's the voice of a stranger. "I get you too. You think if you just get me into a house and get me to marry Dorothy and settle down with a kid, maybe neither of us will burn. Well, fuck that, Joe!" He sways and nearly loses his balance as he turns, and the grief on his face is terrible, like the face of the father of the kid Joe shot when he lost it and started singing. "You know why you're here right now, Brother Joe? You know you lost the fire. You know it! You bring me here like you gotta save me from myself but you're the one who needs help!"

Joe stands up and reaches for Frankie but he slips through his fingers. It's not true, he wants to say, but the words stick in his throat, along with the tears that he refuses to let fall this time. His parents had always told him that he was a good boy while Frankie was restless, a hellraiser. They never saw that Joe was restless too, but for something different -- he didn't want to run away, he wanted them all to stop running away, angry strangers in the same dark house.

As he makes his way slowly back to the unlit porch, following the sounds of Frank's cursing, Joe tries to remember a time before all that -- a time when they both had the fire, when they were both happy. He pictures the little boy in the cowboy suit chasing after him, calling his name. By the time he reaches the porch steps, Frank has calmed down. He sits with a can of beer between his feet, staring out at the farm. "You should plant a garden, Joe," he drawls. "A fucking garden in your backyard. Do something with those hands of yours."

Joe stares, but his brother isn't mocking him. He looks tired, like a kid who's played too long. It's so easy for Joe to sit down next to him and drop his head on Frankie's shoulder, to let Frankie support him for a few minutes. "I will," Joe vows, and he means it, because Joe Roberts is a man who keeps his promises.

But Frank is right: he wants to burn again. As the summer ripens, when it's almost too late to plant and much too late for second thoughts, Joe gets out the hoe and the shovel to tear a hole in his yard. It takes almost all day -- a day he could have spent at the beach with Maria and Raffael. Farming has taught him that sometimes you have to plow under the old crop to get anything new to grow.

There in the soil of his own backyard, he finds an Indian arrowhead. The edges are still sharp, and he cuts his hand on it. It's a good omen though, a bond of blood. Joe puts the message away for Frankie.