by Michael J. Brien
MATTHEW STARED AT his brother and took a step back. Why’d he say that? Like it was a gathering of wolves? We’re just your brothers and little sister, man. Just us. Family. ‘Why’d you say that?’
Jeremiah coughed. His soft belly shook. Sophie giggled quick as a snake before putting the back of her manicured fingers to her mouth. Max stayed at the door. His face expressionless, as stern and flat as a post.
Matthew asked again. ‘Jeremiah, why’d you say that, man?’
Jeremiah didn’t want to spill it out over the floor like a drunk. He stayed facing Matthew. ‘Look at you, you got nothing to offer, Matt. You got nothing. Nothin’.’ Jeremiah stretched out his arms and let the string of white lights fall.
Matthew felt the heat flaming in his cheeks. He wiped the calloused tips of his fingers down along his sandpaper cheeks. ‘Maybe I should of shaved, huh, Jeremiah?’
‘Make no difference.’
‘You’re right, baby brother.’
Sophie moved beside Matthew and faced Jeremiah. ‘We’re not a gathering of wolves, Jerr. Wolves don’t gather. They make sense of things.’
Petri sat down on the sofa, smoothed his palms over his jeans. ‘We haven’t been together for a long while, Jerr. We stopped by ’cause, well, you’re still in Mom’s house.’
Jeremiah shrugged his shoulders out of his heavy leathers and dropped his coat on the Lazy Boy. ‘Yeah, I am.’ He walked past Matthew and Sophie into the kitchen. He turned on the light, a single bulb that hung from a cord of BX. ‘Come in here, all of ya.’ He pulled open the refrigerator door. Miller High Lite sparkled from the shelves, and the turkey he had cooked alone last night glistened from under a sheet of aluminum foil. He opened the bread drawer and took out a loaf of pumpernickel and a pumpkin pie. ‘Eat,’ he said.
Max moved from the door.
Petri made himself a sandwich, spreading mayo, cranberry sauce and turkey between the pumpernickel. He licked his fingers. He sighed and looked across the table at Jeremiah still carving slowly and deliberately, not wanting to scrape the blade against the bone, wanting to savor the bone so he could suck out the marrow after biting off the bit of ligament and tendon.
Matthew held the lip of the Miller High Lite against his own brown lips, not sipping, just pressing it against the tender muscle. He pushed back in his chair, raised the bottle high and said, ‘To Mom, brothers and little sister,’ and took a long draw.
Sophie pulled the bottle from his lips and kissed him. ‘I loved her, big brother.’ She went and kissed each brother on the lips and when she got to Max gave him a hug along with her kiss and sat back down. She drove her fork through the crust of pumpkin pie, the brothers looking at her. ‘It’s good,’ she said.
‘Yeah,’ said Matthew. ‘It’s all good.’ He looked over at Jeremiah and said, ‘Brother, little sister’s right. We ain’t a gathering. We ain’t a pack of wolves. We’re family. We’re all we got in this damned forsaken place and it’s good for us to come together.’
Max stayed standing, swallowed a piece of giblet, wiped his mouth with the cheap white paper napkin and went over to the upright piano—large, brown hardwood, the middle C, still out of tune, should have been chopped up for firewood when they were kids and Mom couldn’t afford heat, when all hell had broken loose and nothing was thought salvageable, and maybe she didn’t even know if tomorrow would come, but when Max sat on the bench and began to play, no matter what he played, his long lean fingers bending and softly dispelling the evil around them, the desperateness in his little sister’s eyes diminished, the pain on Petri’s face smoothed down into a dirty smile, the insurmountable unhappiness in Matthew’s jaw eased, and Jeremiah lowered his small head against his little sister’s shoulder and cried.
Max remembered and sat down, gathering the keys under his fingers, pushing at them. They swelled, became lively. Max knew that tomorrow would come and it would be better than today and to hell with the neighborhood and the city and the world. The song echoed against the bead boarded walls and tin ceiling and called this family together for a moment in time, and Max was glad that Mom had saved this shit-box relic of a piano.
Michael J. Brien is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and author of children and adult short fiction, poetry and non-fiction pieces. He is a recipient of grants from the Iowa, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire State Arts Councils. A member of the New Hampshire Writer’s Project, his recent work has been published in Edify Fiction, Oyster River Pages, Amoskeag, Miranda, Epiphany, Flash Fiction and Toasted Cheese literary magazines.