by Bruce Meyer

When we were kids, my brother and I would lie in our bunk beds at night long after we were told lights out by our parents. Because I was older, I got the upper bunk. His great fear was that I would grow too fast, as I did, and that the upper bed would collapse on the lower, crushing him. He always said he hated being in my shadow. I was good at school and sports and he wasn’t. He was always screwing up in small ways. I got away with far too much. When I took piano lessons—Tony had no patience for music—he asked me why I was making up part of the piece I was supposed to be learning.

‘That’s the cadenza,’ I said. ‘It’s the stuff you make up when no one tells you what to do.’

‘Like us,’ he said.

‘I don’t follow.’

‘Well, you’re always telling me what to do even when you don’t know what you’re doing. I know when you make stuff up. I just go along with it. You’re the big brother. Someday, I’m going to get to call the shots. I’m going to be the one to make stuff up.’

He followed me everywhere, even when I didn’t want him to.

On one of my dates when I was sixteen, as I was kissing a girl named Arrieta who was known for her kissing and for loving to be fondled, my brother showed up in our basement where Arrieta and I were busy on the old couch and asked what I was doing. I told him to get lost. He stood there and stared. He knew full-well what I was doing. He was being a pest.

Later, I told him that when he got to be my age, I was going to spoil a night of his, and he replied: ‘Go ahead. Someday, I will not only follow you around, I will beat you to something important.’

We grew older. We went our separate ways. We tried to stay in touch, but it was hard. We had family obligations, work responsibilities. And then, a month ago, I got a call saying Tony had passed. Just like that. Passed. I hung up the phone and sat on the edge of the bed in stunned silence. It was the middle of the night. I should have been up late reading with a flashlight beneath the blankets like when my brother and I used to share a room and comic books, but instead I was in the dark beside my wife. She propped herself on one elbow and asked what the call was about.

‘Tony’s gone,’ I said. She reached to turn on the light. I told her not to. ‘There’s nothing to do right now. Go back to sleep. Please, go back to sleep.’

We used to have plaid blankets on our bunk beds and cowboy sheets. Those were the fads for boys when we were young. There was one cowboy who always seemed out of place from the other figures in the pattern who were breaking bucking broncos or shooting up the streets of a frontier town. The lonesome cowboy was riding off into the sunset, his head down. One night we talked about our sheets.

‘I bet I know where he’s going,’ Tony told me.

‘Okay. Where? I think he’s pony express taking the slow route.’

‘Not going to tell you,’ he said as he turned over and switched off the wall-mounted light beside his bunk. ‘But he’s going to get there ahead of anyone else and they’re going to make him the sheriff. Anyone after him will be the odd hombre in town when that happens.’

When the funeral finally concluded, and Tony was lowered into the ground, his wife sobbing, his children clinging to her sleeve, it was late in the afternoon. The February sun was setting between the headstones. I stared at the orange glow off to the west and could have sworn I saw that lonesome cowboy again, his head bent, his horse exhausted, putting one hoof ahead of the other because there was some place he was destined to be even if he took the slow way to get there first.

Bruce Meyer is author or editor of more than sixty books of poetry, short fiction, flash fiction, non-fiction, and literary journalism. His selected poems, The First Taste, appeared in November 2018, and his next collection of poems, McLuhan’s Canary, will be published in November. He lives in Barrie, Ontario.