Roger Doofenshmirtz is a good man. Everyone agrees.
Politicians, they say, you should generally not expect too much of, but our Roger does right by us. He’s been reelected once already. Danville has a law still on the books that tells him he’ll only be allowed to do this once more, but he’s certain that once he reaches the term limit the good people of Danville will flock to find him another equally prestigious post. He may run for governor. He turns this over in his head, sometimes, examining it the same way that he examines the crystal paperweight his sister in law gave him for Christmas. He supposes she’s technically now his ex-sister in law, but then, she did keep the name. The paperweight is clear, a globe with a plane sheared off the bottom, and as he examines its featureless interior he thinks of campaigns. Weeks away from home, he knows he could handle. He’s never particularly enjoyed traveling, but then, he doesn’t particularly enjoy many things. The speeches, the dinners, the handshaking—well, there’s certainly nothing new there. He will win. There’s little doubt, not with his pristine background and moderate politics. And then there will be the inauguration, the celebration, the governor’s mansion.
There is nothing inside the crystal paperweight. Except for its considerable heft, it could be full of air. It could be a vacuum, contained within a solid unmoving shell of glass. The appropriateness of this thing, in his hands, does not escape him.
The governor’s mansion. Well, he could return to visit Danville at his leisure, of course, but there would be no more early morning walks down to the bagel shop on Fourth to find a bleary unrested Heinz already crouched over the counter, demanding a double shot of espresso. There would be no more casual inquiries to the mailman about his route, or the high rise with the strange doorbell earlier in the course of his deliveries. Neither would there be early evenings slipping out to see what strange and unannounced festival had sprung up on a summer evening, to glance over the crowd and find his brother among the smiling riot, inexplicably scorched or sullen or perhaps even—on the brighter evenings—smiling faintly at the stage, temporarily unburdened. Roger had followed him across an ocean for these things. If the time came, he would easily close up the lease on his modest apartment—there would be nothing he need take with him—and follow his brother across another. People were everywhere, and he was good at people. There was nothing he had built here that he could not reconstruct, in the same way, in another town.
“Am I a good man?” he says. It's a silly question, but he can't stop returning to it.
“Well there’s a meeting at two—” Melanie starts to rattle off, and then pauses, a leaf of paper halfway lifted off her clipboard. “I’m sorry, what did you ask?”
Roger rolls the paperweight over, willing some expression to come across his face. He can feel the blankness on his own features. “I’ve never been terribly philosophical,” he says, “but I do wonder, now and then.”
Melanie says, “Well, your approval ratings are through the roof this month after the orphan and widow cheese banquet.”
Roger nods, because it's what people do, but things like that mean very little in the long term. He still hasn’t forgotten that a mob of chilly citizens once tried to steal the sweater off his back.
“If you’ll excuse me Melanie,” he says, “I’m going to take a bit of a walk.”
“Be back before two,” she warns him. She’s flipping through her sheaf of papers even as she follows him to the door, catching it with her heel, not looking up. “Mother’s day is coming up, too, so if you want me to buy the usual gift by shipping time you’ll need to get me some cash before week’s end—”
Ah, Roger thinks, looking up over his dark glasses at the silver weight of the sky outside, mother’s day. He leaves the building with a vague affirmative and sets off down the sidewalk. Everything is thick and green-tinted with the promise of rain. He greets constituents who pass him, shakes a few hands, extricates himself from political discussions with a well-timed smile, does all these things effortlessly. He does everything effortlessly. He had done most of the painting on Heinz’s masterpiece replica himself, from memory, and even that had been—almost effortless. A few days with a book, learning how paints worked; a few days with a practice canvas, learning how the physics of the chemistry combined. Hundreds of dollars in supplies, finding just the right colors in just the right textures. It had been easy. Roger had very little trouble making the world around him into just the shape he preferred, and a canvas posed no particularly new difficulty. When Heinz had painted it, he had seemed so tense; fever-glowing, spotted with pigment for days at a time, growling over splotches of slightly too yellow, like he’d been physically fighting the canvas for dominance. Nothing came easily to Heinz.
Roger wonders what failure feels like. Heinz is always failing, he’s in a perpetual state of it, and he doesn’t seem to care for it much. But Roger remembers the painting, he remembers Heinz grabbing his arm in the dining hall, physically lifting him off the bench—sporty, muscular Roger hauled off by half-starved Heinz—the rush across the grass, the dim light of the morning bright around his brother’s pale face. He had some inkling, even then, that the failures were what made these few successes so terrible and bright. For the brief length of time it took them to race across that quad, Heinz had been a giant striding the earth.
Roger could recreate that painting down to the smallest fleck, but he doesn't think he could ever have composed it. It was built from too many last minute adjustments, compensation, improvisation. There's something Heinz has that he lacks.
Failure, he thinks again, as he steps into the faint shadow of the DEI building. He shouldn’t go up, he hasn’t the time or the need. Heinz is—high strung. He never appreciates people arriving unannounced. He doesn’t appreciate much, actually, he is a bit ungrateful. No sibling is perfect, of course. When he was young that sort of thing had bothered him. Heinz and his bad manners, his acerbic comments to authority figures, his half finished tasks—well, it just wasn’t done, was it? You couldn’t very well leave the fence half painted just because you thought up some interesting mechanical fancy, could you? And there was no call for correcting teachers like that, as if you knew as much as they did. With an attitude like that, it was no wonder the town had closed down around Heinz. He had always had a vague disapproving apprehension that, at four years his senior, Heinz had less good sense in his whole body than Roger had in his little finger.
But then Heinz had been gone, evaporated one day as if he had never been, and his room had been emptied and no one would tell Roger where he had gone, and this uneasiness had settled over him. In truth, it had never really left.
Roger decides he has at least twenty minutes to spare and likely will not need all of them, and so he pushes into the lobby of the building and waits for an elevator. This building is a kind of success in itself. Roger honestly doesn’t understand what Heinz does these days—he’s an inventor of some kind, apparently—but it looks successful in its own way. Charlene has mentioned the alimony a few times, but Roger has lately found it in himself to hope that Heinz has started to make his own way, on his own merits. After forty-seven years, it would be a long time in coming. The elevator dings when it reaches the penthouse and opens onto the long blue hallway. He takes a chance on the door to the workshop, knocking with three solid raps just to the center of the wood. It looks like it’s been replaced again.
Heinz jerks back the door and peers through an opening just wide enough to accommodate one eye. “Roger,” he says. “What are you doing here?”
Roger smiles his usual smile and pushes past the narrowly opened door. The workshop is looking cleaner than usual, and the smell of oil fire is faint today. Things must be going well. “I was in the neighborhood,” he says.
There is a distant crack of thunder—from high above the city, through the wide panorama of the east wall, Roger can see the faint flash between the clouds rolling towards them. The sky is a front of darkness, but the balcony is lit as brightly as ever by a few tenacious sunbeams.
“Look,” Heinz grumbles, “Perry’s due in like an hour and I don’t have time to deal with you right now. Or ever.”
Roger hadn’t been expecting any kind of warm welcome. He is not bothered by this; he had long ago stopped flinching when his brother trampled the unspoken fabric of social decorum.
When Heinz had finally returned home, all those years ago, after a half-decade of oppressive silence in the household, he had seen his brother in a different light. Heinz had been nineteen, Roger fifteen, and there had been a radiant strangeness to him. He had been to America. He had lived in America. Any place would have done, really, as long as it had been outside of Drusselstein, but there was something about America that had fascinated Roger. In retrospect, more than anything it had been Heinz’s particular mix of disdain and pride. Oh sure, Heinz had said once, as he ripped the wires out of a dying fax machine he had brought back with him, they’ve got buses but you don’t want to take those if you can help it, you gotta get your own car. Roger had hardly seen more than a dozen different cars in his life, and most of those had been built from soviet tank scrap. There was a magic in Heinz’s casual jadedness, a cosmopolitan flourish in his offhanded anecdotes. Gimmelshtump remained as tightlipped and suspicious of their prodigal son as ever before, but Roger—Roger had begun to perceive a world beyond the dark and narrow woods of his home country. If the world was so much wider than the disapproval of one town, then perhaps it was wide enough to accommodate even his odd, troubled brother.
“Mother’s day is coming up,” Roger remarks. He’d tucked his hands into his pockets like a trainer trying not to spook a horse.
“Oh,” Heinz says. He glances towards the blackboard stuffed into a corner of the workshop.
“I thought that if you don’t have a gift yet this year,” Roger goes on, “you and I could give my usual gift together.”
“I don’t need your help,” Heinz seethes. He lashes out at a nearby machine and immediate draws his leg back up towards himself, muttering some rude things to himself as he squeezes the abused toe.
“Well what with you being so busy,” Roger says, diplomatic as ever, “I thought perhaps you would appreciate being able to put that worry aside this year.” He does not mention the fact that this yearly struggle is as futile as it is unpleasant to watch.
“Yeah,” Heinz snaps, “and then she’ll just happen to mention off hand at the next family reunion how lazy I am. No way am I gonna look like I can’t be bothered to buy my own mother a mother’s day gift.”
“We can double the size of the order,” Roger offers. “You can contribute half.”
“She’ll just cross my name off the card and act like you sent it all.”
Uneasiness rises inside Roger like so much storm water, gritty and worryingly thick. Now the sky to the east is deepening its darkness, the swollen heavy clouds as flat along their undersides as the crystal paperweight in his office. He thinks that he should have brought an umbrella.
“And how is that different,” he says at last, “from what will happen if you send your own gift?”
Heinz freezes. There are plated animals, arthropods, who can snap the segments of their shells into a tight shield when attacked. It’s a good defense, but once the plates have been pulled together the animal cannot move. Roger wonders what happens when something large enough, with sharp enough teeth, finally comes along.
“This year I’ll make something good,” Heinz says. “Something so good she’ll have to—”
“She threw out your automatic laundry folder,” Roger says. Is this cruel? He thinks he might be doing something cruel. “Last year. I saw it at the dump when I went to visit her. No one had been able to get it into the trash compactor.”
Heinz doesn’t deny it. He’s never been good at denying anything, except the common factor in all his failures. He gets angry instead.
“If you didn’t send—” Heinz is so strung out he can’t even finish, and so he starts over, “—if you weren’t so perfect all the time, maybe I’d have a chance!”
“It’s not my fault that mother likes me better,” Roger reminds him. He can feel the storm water of his unease rushing up over the ditches that hold it, dark with the gathered detritus of an old road.
“Yes it is! You do it on purpose! You do everything on purpose!”
“I do what?” Roger replies. He can’t meet his brother’s eyes.
Heinz makes a furious choking noise, his hands spasming into tremulous claws. Heinz either doesn’t understand his own accusations, or cannot articulate them—as long as they remain locked up in his throat, they cannot alter the course of the argument. Roger is afraid that he already knows the shape of them, that a time is coming when they will finally rip free of the spit and the flesh and Heinz will cough them up, bloody. These tides of unease rise in Roger periodically, when he’s telling stories to constituents at banquets and when he’s looking at old polaroids or when, in the calm emptiness of his apartment, he simply remembers. He is complicit in something, he can feel the edges of it. He knows that he has done nothing wrong, committed no crimes, and yet there are these edges in his memories. He’s never hit his brother, not even when they were stupid country children. He’s never stolen from him or pinned false blame on him or been deliberately cruel—deliberately, his thoughts repeat, deliberately—and still this unease…
“Let me take you out for lunch,” Roger says, voice desperately bright, “we’ll forget this whole mess. You can tell me about Vanessa.”
Heinz still says nothing. He looks apoplectic.
“There’s a shwarma place,” Roger says, “it just opened up! You can get anything you like. Come on, let’s put this unpleasantness behind us, there’s no use dredging up ugly things. We have to learn to accept… ”
He loses control of his own argument. He can feel the unease surging—when this comes over him, as it sometimes does, he buys things. He sends his father an espresso machine shaped like the lawn gnome he lost before Roger was even born. See, it says for him, there’s no need for all this resentment towards your own family. All is mended, forget the past; things are better now than they ever were, why ruminate on pain that’s already behind you? But Heinz is going red and Roger knows almost without looking at him that he’s not going to accept the gift. Heinz won’t let himself be soothed.
I sent the espresso machine for you, Roger wants to shout, although it would sound vapidly materialistic and nonsensical to anyone beside himself. I sent it because he blamed you. I’ll do it again, I’ll do it again a hundred times if you’ll just—
Roger is drowning under this flood, reaching for ideas that won’t come. Everything is so easy for him, everything except for Heinz. He reaches out and grabs Heinz by the boney shoulders, holds him in place and even then he still can’t seem to manage eye contact. In the distance a fine veil of rain has come down, and he can see the line of its progress as it sweeps across the roofs of the town.
“What do you want?” he asks. “You’re unhappy. Tell me what you want. I can give it to you—money is no object, I have considerable swing in this town, you know that—”
“I don’t want anything from you,” Heinz says.
“Please,” Roger says. “Anything.”
Heinz is almost incapable of guile—Roger can see some internal argument as it rages across his face, so there must be something, maybe multiple somethings, that Heinz is fighting tooth and nail not to confess. Roger’s heart stutters. For a moment he thinks this is it, this is going to do it, and then Heinz’s face hardens.
“I’ll get it for myself,” he says. His eyes bore into Roger, unblinking.
The rain has reached them, washing across the balcony in a grey wave. He watches it form trails across the floor and roll down towards the blackened drain. He has been holding this family together for years now, despite Heinz’s complete unwillingness to contribute anything except—malfunctioning machines and—and surly conversation, and rudeness. Doesn’t he see that Roger is trying to make a place for him at the table, that Roger will be his ally if he’ll just
“Let it go,” Roger says, a kind of hoarse breathlessness in his voice he doesn’t understand.
“You don’t get to tell me what to let go of,” Heinz snarls, “Mr. goody two shoes, trophy winning golden boy, you don’t get to tell me when I’m done being angry!”
“I’m not the one you should be angry at,” Roger says. “It’s not my fault.”
Heinz gives him that impossible look of rage, the one that no words can break past. It is your fault, it seems to say, but Roger doesn’t understand how that’s possible. He hasn’t done anything, not ever.
“Do you blame me for being born?” Roger demands, terrified at the possibility. What could he possibly do to repair that? How could anyone repair that, to make amends for their own existence?
Heinz tries to shake himself free. He jerks like a rabbit trying to climb out of a human grip, frantic, but Roger won’t let him go—if he lets go now he’s lost everything, he just needs Heinz to stay here, the alternative is too terrible to contemplate. He needs Heinz to stay here and forgive him.
Abruptly, his hands drop. Forgive him for what? And how, he questions himself, could one be forgiven when one has not even asked for forgiveness?
Heinz scrambles away, towards the balcony instead of the hall with his typical lack of forethought.
Roger pushes a hand up underneath his glasses, trying to press loose the stress that's accumulated under his eyes. “Heinz,” he says, after a while, “let me ask you something.”
He has never had difficulty being honest with Heinz. With the rest of the world he’s always scouting for cues, misdirecting inquiries, obscuring his own ignorance. Sometimes he feels vaguely like a spy in his own home. When he first came here—he had been twenty two, a transferring student—he had been constantly racing to stay ahead of every conversation, never betraying a gap in his own comprehension, asking just the right questions to learn without exposing ignorance. He remembers how he fought to lose his accent. Heinz had been the only one he trusted to ask—it had been Heinz who finally explained to him that a tube was train system, that Florida could be metonymous for nursing homes. He wishes that trust could run two ways.
“Am I a bad person?” Roger asks. He feels a sting of embarrassment—for an adult to ask such a question, particularly an adult like himself—respected, responsible, a pillar of the community—
“No,” Heinz snarls. “You’re perfect, everyone knows it.”
Roger pulls off his glasses, folds the legs in, then unfolds them again. “Then why do you hate me?”
“I don’t—” Heinz starts, and then makes a frustrated noise in his throat. “It’s not that—hate doesn’t mean—”
Roger looks out over the edge of the balcony. The grey is so thick now that he can’t make out the dark bellies of clouds anymore. He’s due back to the office in—how long has he been here? Surely not more than a few minutes. He wants to leave. If he left this would all be behind them. He could forget about it and come back some other day, ignore the fact that Heinz hates him and they both know it, pretend to be normal.
“When we were little,” Heinz tries again, in the offhanded tone he uses to tell all his trivial stories, “I won this teddy bear. I worked so hard and I was sooo proud of myself. So I gave it to Mama. And she gave it to you.”
Roger doesn’t remember the incident himself, but he remembers Heinz has talked about it before. He still doesn’t understand. “It was just a toy,” Roger says. “We had lots of toys.”
“You had lots of toys,” Heinz corrects sharply. Roger knows that he’s right, but doesn’t like to dwell on it. “Anyways, that’s not the point. I worked hard for it, and she gave it to you.”
“It’s not my fault,” Roger says, again. He doesn’t like the way it sounds in his own mouth. “I didn’t ask for it.”
“But you took it!” Heinz shouts, with the terrific abruptness of a levee breaking. “You took everything!”
Roger forms a few silent syllables, and then finally replies, “Then what would you have had me do? Just not take it?”
“Yeah, I’d have liked it if you hadn’t taken it!”
Roger squints at his brother.
“You didn’t have to take it!” Heinz says, “You had plenty of your own stuff, you didn’t need mine too.”
Roger knows that this is not really about the bear, but he still can’t quite get past this. If he had not accepted the bear, his mother still would not have kept it. They both knew this. Surely Heinz knew this. She would have thrown it away just like she did the automatic machine from last year’s holiday. What harm was there in accepting a gift that would otherwise benefit no one?
“You could have,” Heinz says in a small, distant voice, “given it to me.”
He’s looking out over the balcony, at the sky. He looks young. Heinz has always looked older—when they were children he had been skinny and sharp, without the soft padding of baby fat, and even when he came back from America he had been tall, thin, bruised around the eyes. He had never been a child the way Roger had been a child. It had been one of the things that made it hard to—that had made it difficult to imagine—
He looks so young now. The past is as fresh on him now as it had been thirty years ago, forty years ago, alive in technicolor over his aging skin. For the first time Roger comprehends that there may be more than one way to experience time, that perhaps yesterday is not so distant for everyone else.
“You’re not mad that mother didn’t love you,” Roger says, slowly.
“There’s still time,” Heinz mutters. “I can still make her.”
“—You’re mad that I didn’t love you,” Roger finishes.
Heinz flinches, stares out into the open air beyond the building. It’s heavy with rain. Complicit, Roger thinks again, and this time with a dull comprehension that he would give anything to undo. This, he suspects, is not something he can sweep under the rug with pleasant talk and luxurious gifts and a stubborn refusal to discuss the past. He’s in no position, he can’t ask Heinz not to acknowledge this, the way he has been asking him for years not to acknowledge everything else—maybe, oh maybe even, that request was the heart of the problem.
“You know I love you,” Roger says, “don’t you?”
Heinz snorts, a little life coming back into his pale figure. “I know you love being Mr. perfect wholesome normal guy.”
“I love you,” Roger says, deliberately slipping into German. It feels more solid, more honest. “I’ve always loved you. You’re my brother.”
“Oh,” Heinz says, “and blood is thicker, huh?”
Roger doesn’t know what to say to that. Their father loves Heinz as well, in his own way, and they have their share of more distant kin who have weighed in either direction, but he cannot argue that their mother is anything other than a lost cause. Even if he wanted to, now, he had just been the one to tell Heinz to give it up. Blood is not thicker. He knows this. He dislikes this.
“I followed you here,” he says, aiming for casual and detached and perhaps managing it. “From Drusselstein. It’s not a coincidence that we live in the same city, I came here after you deliberately.”
“What,” Heinz mutters, “to take all my stuff here too?”
“No,” Roger answers, taken aback. “To see you. I missed you. You’re so—” he rubs his index and thumb together, searching, “—you’re this bright spot of energy, all the time, no matter what you’re doing. The rest of the world is placid and colorless compared to the life you live. It’s fantastical. Heinz, you’re a failure—”
Heinz looks away, grimacing. A zip of panic races through Roger, and he rushes to finish.
“But sometimes you do succeed.” He opens his hands, like a surrender. “I wanted—I want—to be around, to see when you succeed.”
“I don’t succeed at anything,” Heinz says.
“Of course you do.” Roger considers this for a moment, and then adds, “Even if it’s just for a little while. All success is temporary.”
Roger thinks this is not where he wants to go right now—he doesn’t want to explain how a constant stream of effortless success can be a lot less fun than it appears, or dig deep into the nuances of temporary. He wants… he wants what he’s always wanted, what he’s afraid to have to ask for. He wants to be forgiven.
He breathes deeply. The wind that hisses in from the east is warm and slow, weighted down with vapor.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“You’re sorry,” Heinz echoes, bemused.
“I’m sorry,” Roger pushes on, “that I didn’t understand—that I didn’t try to understand—”
He stands there for a long time, struggling to find the words. He doesn’t want to admit that he’s complicit, that he shares a guilt in all this, in the darkness that for so long he had seen himself as a force against. If he says it out loud, Heinz will know—there will be no more possibility of a perfect Roger where Heinz is concerned. He’ll never be able to regain that impugnable innocence. Roger had always thought that perfection was incidental, that success didn’t matter to him. It had been easy to think that when success and perfection were effortless.
“I don’t understand everything that happened to you,” Roger says, “but I’m sorry that I let it happen. I’m sorry that I didn’t do anything to help.”
Heinz looks at him for a long time. He is clearly, desperately tired. That’s nothing new, but somehow Roger feels that he’s noticing it for the first time. It must be hard, he thinks, to get much rest when you’re dragging so many things along with you.
After a long time, Heinz leaves, disappears behind a pile of junk without a word. Roger feels his shoulder slump, his breath slow. He’s never been able to reach Heinz, not in all their years together, not a single time. Why should this be any different.
Heinz reappears at last, holding something shiny at his side. He crosses the floor until he stands in front of Roger, lips pressed and eyes narrow.
“Don’t grab me again,” he warns.
Roger nods. That had been—a mistake. A breach of trust. A futile gambit.
Heinz holds out the thing in his hands. It’s a clear umbrella, Roger sees now, the kind with the oddly elongated shape, to protect against wind.
“Here,” his brother says. “You’ll need this to get back to the office. You’ve probably got a line of people waiting to talk to you already.”
“I’ve got a meeting at two,” Roger says, dumbly.
Heinz scowls and thrusts the umbrella at him, pushes it right into his chest. “You’re gonna be late,” he says. “I hate it when people are late, it’s so inconsiderate, it’s like, I made time to be here buddy, how about you make time to be here too?”
Roger takes the umbrella.
“Vanessa’s starting volleyball this semester, by the way,” Heinz goes on, “so I’m gonna need all hands on deck for maximum cheering capacity. I’ll send your secretary the game dates as soon as the coach gets back to me. I think she’s avoiding me. The coach, I mean, not your secretary. Although Melanie’s not super friendly with me either if it comes to that.”
Roger allows himself to be bundled off into the hallway on a train of Heinz’s disjointed complaints, bobbing along in a dissociated blur. The umbrella in his hands is made of some thin plastic that clings to his damp palms. It’s cool under his fingers.
Finally, Heinz stands in the door way, the flow of chatter temporarily stymied. He’s looking closely at Roger, who feels… small. He feels small, never mind that he’s six feet tall and two inches with shoulders, as he’s been told, like a linebacker. Never mind that Heinz is still slouching, and even if he wasn’t they would only be the same height. He feels small.
“Sorry isn’t a one time thing Roger,” he says, at last. “You don’t get to slap it down once and then forget about it.”
That’s not forgiveness, that’s nothing as permanent and cleansing as forgiveness, but it’s more than Heinz has ever given him. It's the sound of latch unlocking.
“Keep the umbrella,” Heinz says. “I’ve got like twenty.”
And then he closes the door, once and for all.