by Douglas Kolacki
Steven Evans found the veteran's home late in the morning. It was a pair of gray paneled buildings in one of Providence's satellite areas, neighborhoods that deteriorated the farther they got from historical, steepled downtown; empty beer cans, patched sidewalks, graffiti scrawled on walls. But a river gurgled through this area, banks lined with green trees, and that was nice.
One of the buildings stood four stories high. The other was half as high, with men sitting around its front porch. Steven swung into its small fenced-in parking lot with a screech of brakes, got out, slammed the door and swept past the bearded and ballcap-wearing residents.
"Where's Rick Evans?"
He stood between a desk and an open office door. Before him rose wooden stairs, and someone--some thing--came staggering down. He smelled it and drew back.
--No, hardly even like a man at all, shriveled down and drained of all color. The man grimaced under a mess of white hair, struggling beneath the weight of a green duffel, and blew past Steven, wheezing for breath.
"Poor devil," said a familiar voice at Steven's shoulder.
He turned to get an eyeful of his younger brother by two years. "Rick."
Steven stepped back for an inspection. It had been a while, but now his brother's presence was bringing the old modes back, starting with this appraisal. He scanned Rick from his shoes to the top of his head while his brother waited.
Rick wore a black tee shirt with a white skull and crossed Flying V guitars underneath. His brown hair--he was touching fifty, and must have dyed away the gray--was still buzzed to Navy regulations; his face showed a hint of stubble on his chin and above the upper lip. His eyes had never appeared so blue and clear.
"Well." Steven's arms folded themselves. "You look...fit."
"The V.A. medical center has a gym on its first floor. And I walk downtown and back most days. Takes thirty minutes."
The carrion smell from a minute ago still tickled Steven's nostrils. "Who was...? Never mind." He held out a plane ticket. "Here."
His younger brother's eyes dropped to it, then met Steven's again. "Cash it in."
Steven withdrew the ticket. Something was wrong here. Cash it in. He waited for the rest, but it did not come. No hemming and hawing, no "well--ah--look, Steven, I just kind of--well--I just wanna stay here, that's all!" but "cash it in." And that was it.
"Rick--" Steven stepped aside to allow a black man in a leather Marine Corps jacket to pass--"you told me yourself, residents only get two years here. Your time is up in a month. Where will you go after this? You told me you've had one temp job in all this time. Got much savings? What'll happen when it runs out?"
A nervous grin teased the corner of Rick's mouth. Ah--there it was. Steven relaxed a bit. Now would come the blank stare, the stammering. "Well?"
"My savings did run out, when I was staying at the motel. I spent one night in a clean, comfortable, well-run shelter, and they brought me here the next day."
"So what will you do now?"
Rick paused. He shifted on his feet, looked away for a few seconds. "While you're here...you should see the sights."
"Don't change the subject."
"I'm not. There's something I should show you. We'll have a nice walk around College Hill, and you can keep pitching your plan."
Steven thought about it. The flight didn't leave until that evening, so...
"All right. I'll take you to lunch. And--" Steven scrambled out of another resident's path. "Rick?"
His brother was already heading for the door, merging effortlessly with the flow of men.
Steven hissed a curse and jumped after him, knocking heads with a man and quickly apologizing. Two others behind him fairly pushed him out onto the porch, where he found Rick leaning on the railing.
"And no arguments." Steven puffed for breath.
"Sounds good." Rick beamed. Not smiled, beamed. "Let's go."
* * *
They climbed into Steven's rented black Jeep Cherokee. Rick guided his brother downtown (right on Valley, then straight down Broadway) where they stopped at a corner shop selling clam cakes and chowder.
Rick said something.
"Eh?" Steven shook his head. "Excuse me?"
"Want to see the John Brown house? Circa 1786. George Washington visited once."
Circa? Steven bristled, a knee-jerk reaction of years. He'd forgotten about it; he used to always react that way when Rick said one of his words. "Circa." Really?
Same old Rick, then. He had changed, yes, as people would after two years, but there was something about this that Steven could not wrap his mind around--and then Rick brought himself back down to earth with one of his words, things no one else ever said but that he for some reason couldn't do without.
"Is that like a museum?"
"It's a state historical spot. There's a parking lot up the street where you can leave the Cherokee."
They went. Steven found a spot, parked, and walked to the booth with cash in hand. An attendant sat there with his head down, a Kansas City Royals ballcap covering his face.
Steven jolted. The man turned up his face and showed him Tutankhamen a year after his death, or if the Pharaoh had simply gone on aging from then till now, withering away, hair thinning down to white wisps, eyes filming over and face bones creasing yellow, waxy skin, lacking the cover of bandages.
But the thing opened its mouth and blew a stench in Steven's face, something he'd smelled in his boyhood when he discovered a dead groundhog by his grandparent's house. The carcass had been crawling with maggots by that time. Steven drew back, cursing.
Rick grabbed Steven's billfold off the pavement--Steven must have dropped it--and held out a five-dollar bill of his own. The attendant raised a trembling hand and took it.
"Sorry." Rick all but physically hustled his brother across the lot, to the street. "I didn't know there'd be another one there."
Another one. Like that guy at the Vet's home... Steven snorted the smell out of his nose. He wanted to take a shower. "How did he get that job?"
"Oh, crap..." Rick looked back across the lot to the booth. "He probably doesn't work there at all. He's just hoping to pick up money from customers. The real booth guy is going to come back from lunch and run him off."
Steven had recovered by this time. "Go get your money back."
"No, no, it's all right."
"It's not all right. Get your money back from him, Rick. He robbed you."
"I'll come too if you want."
"Seriously, it's all right. Come on..." Rick headed up the street. Steven looked after him, debating whether to press the point or not. Finally he took off after his brother.
"Truth be told," said Rick, "I feel sorry for those."
"Rick, will you slow down? There, thanks." Steven fell into step beside him. "All right then. You're out five bucks, that's up to you. Is there some kind of epidemic going around?"
"No. Not really."
"What was wrong with that guy? And the guy at the home?"
Rick picked a red apple up off the grass, examined it, wiped it on his tee shirt. "Shane, you mean? Let me tell you about him. Last month I said that if the managers needed anything typed up, I'd be glad to do it for them." The Navy taught Rick how to type, back in the days of clattering teletypes, and now he was up to eighty words a minute. "Well the next thing you know he comes knocking on my door, informing me that I'm part of his committee, and that I have to drop whatever I'm doing and go meet with them.
"I'd never heard a word about any committee, and told him so. Personally I think that was a pretense. He was the type who's always butting in, trying to tell you how to do everything. He would talk on and on, giving you advice you never asked for. He did that with everyone."
"He sure left in a hurry."
"Guy's probably halfway back to North Dakota by now. Another one lived in my apartment--we're up on the fourth floor, the penthouse suite, we call it--an OCD type who tried to appoint himself our cleaning dictator. Typed up a hundred-page schedule with detailed orders about everything we were supposed to break our backs scrubbing and polishing, and even a checkoff sheet he expected us to use, without mentioning any of this to us first. We ignored it. By the time he fled the state to move back in with his parents, he looked (and smelled) only a little better than that man back at the parking lot. Guys like that," Rick cleaned his glasses on his shirt, "never seem to last long."
"Is that so."
They headed over a bridge, crossing a river graced with white swans, and uphill past the First Baptist Church in America ("founded by Roger Williams himself, in 1638," Rick said). A hike down Benefit Street brought them to the John Brown house.
* * *
"This," Steven said, "is what you wanted to show me?"
Rick had led Steven around to the side, allowed his brother to pay admission for both, and ushered him into a small room with a long, narrow display case like an open coffin covered over with glass.
"It's the famous root."
It was five to six feet long. Twisting, gnarled, it split into two branches on the way down, curling up at the ends in a way that curiously resembled feet. Steven appraised it up and down as he had done his brother. "Well."
"It's from an apple tree, centuries old. This grew over Roger Williams' grave. You know who he was, right?"
"He founded this city."
"He was part of the Massachusetts Bay colony until he ran afoul of the Puritans. Went against their grain. Among other things, he believed land should be purchased, not just taken, from the natives. The Puritans were going to ship him back to England to stand trial, so he fled into the wilderness like Moses. Williams started a new colony, an independent colony, and named it Providence.'"
"After two hundred years, they decided to move his remains to a proper memorial. But when they dug down, they only found greasy dirt and this root. It was as if the tree absorbed him up into itself, and in turn diffused him into the air--trees generate oxygen, you know--as well as sprouting fruit and scattering seeds. And those grew up into more apple trees over the years, and still more as the years became decades and the decades centuries, spreading out over this state."
"Spreading what out, Rick?"
"Not his ghost or anything! But you can see it in history. People breathed it in, drank it in the water. Did you know this was the first colony to dump King George? Rhode Island declared her independence two months before John Hancock signed that document. And when it was time for the Constitutional Convention, this was the only state that refused to participate. Also the last to ratify the Constitution, and only after a Bill of Rights was added."
"And did you see the State House, out past the mall? That statue on top, holding the staff? That's called Independent Man.
"So have you gotten the idea yet, Steven? Different kinds of people react...differently."
Something about Rick unsettled Steven again. When he saw it he realized he'd been hoping not to see it, not even knowing what "it" was. He watched his brother take a last bite of the apple, go to the window and throw the core out instead of dropping it in the room's wastebasket. And then Steven realized. No tension--that was it. Rick was entirely too relaxed. This man was nothing if not high-strung, and it had always been that way.
"Rick, come back with me. Rae spent all last week getting your room ready. It's the same room you used to stay in every Christmas. You won't have to pay any rent until you find a job."
"If you were spending more time here, I'd have worried. But you should be okay heading out tonight."
"Stop dodging the subject."
"How do you feel right now?"
"I feel fine."
But Steven shivered. He shivered, and it was July. And the longer the day went on, the more drained he felt, as if he'd run a marathon. His feet seemed to weigh more with each step.
"I see three white hairs on your head, Steven." The older brother's hair had grayed early due to smoking, before he quit the habit. But never any white. "They weren't there this morning."
"Rick. You and I both know you'll never get anything right on your own. You're gonna end up on the street. You're absent-minded, spacey! You're the deer in the headlights! You couldn't walk across the street without getting hit, unless I was leading you by the hand!"
Steven choked. He went numb as he heard these words from his own mouth.
Somewhere Rick had gotten another apple, and he bit into it now. He chewed, swallowed. "Spacey, yes. Can't help that. But I'm not an idiot. You never gave me a chance." He spoke with great patience. "The whole time we were growing up, you were hulking over me, breathing down my neck. Whenever I tried to do something, you snatched it out of my hands. I couldn't grow, because you wouldn't allow it. That's one reason I think my choosing this place wasn't a coincidence."
Steven tried to grab the apple, but his arm shocked him with its sluggishness. Rick raised it clear, brought it down for another bite.
Steven gathered his strength, made sure he had his words under control before speaking again. "I never realized..."
"Does it matter now?"
The two stood in silence. Rick took another bite, chewed, swallowed.
"I can walk from here," he said. "It's beautiful out today. You can get back out to the airport--T.F. Green's out in the boonies, so to speak, not so close to the...center of it all. Once you're up in the air, you'll be okay again."
One last try. "I'm not going anywhere, not without you--"
Steven found himself outside. He wasn't sure how that happened, but at some point he'd slipped out the door. And now he was hurrying away, holding his breath, avoiding the grass, keeping to the pavement. Old Shane magnified in his mind, the white hair, the parched skin and the carrion reek, and the near-corpse back at the parking lot.
Steven found the jeep and fumbled for the ignition and roared off, not caring if he got a speeding ticket, just get to the airport, now, now...
* * *
Steven, white hairs gone and strength renewed, received an email from Rick. Rick had accepted a job offer from the State of Rhode Island, typing for their tax division. He expected to attain soon the golden dream of all the home's residents, moving out of the crowded building and into a place of his own. No more food stamps, no more government programs.
"And I'm feeling stronger every day," Rick added.
* * *
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